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Shadows of a Brighter Day

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A dusting of snow coated the ground where she fought, and she left her footprints behind as though marking the steps of a dance she knew by heart. They were obliterated almost immediately as her opponents charged at her from all sides, with little regard for the elegant pattern she had laid on the ground. They had no respect for the dance, no notion of the give-and-take of a true battle. They didn’t anticipate her moves as a good partner should, didn’t take care not to step on her toes.

She didn’t really patrol anymore – officially, she’d been retired for five years – but every once in a while, when she needed to let off steam, she went out at night, slaying whatever vampires she happened across. That was one thing she could always count on. No matter what else changed, there was never any shortage of vampires.

There were at least ten of them gathered in the cemetery when Buffy dropped in and broke up their little party. She preferred to fight them in groups these days. After eighteen years of experience, one vampire alone just didn’t pose enough of a challenge.

Eighteen years. Most of the Slayers who’d come before her hadn’t seen their eighteenth birthday, and here she was, still going strong at thirty-three. She was in pretty decent shape for someone for whom slaying was now only a hobby, executing kicks that knocked them down three at a time, like undead dominoes. She reveled in the battle, slipping back into the habits of old and allowing herself to get lost in the violence and the adrenaline rush. Her body remembered this. She could clear her head, put the rest of her life out of her mind while she fought.

Ever since she’d been called, she’d longed – fruitlessly, or so it had seemed – for the simplicity of a normal life. She’d always thought if she could have that, she would never want for more. And part of her was content, as happy as she’d ever been. But there was another part of her that still cherished the rare moments when she could disappear into the night and the world of demons that had become so familiar.

Tonight, disappointingly, the fight was over much too soon. She’d only staked five, but as she plunged her weapon into the chest of the sixth, the others appeared to have vanished. Chickens. Now she’d have to chase them.

Before she could get too far into the grumbling, Buffy’s senses – no longer what they’d been at the height of her career, but still plenty accurate – alerted her to the presence of one last vamp. She leapt to her feet and spun around, her arm drawn back for another killing blow. Thrusting forward, she looked past the fine mist of falling snowflakes and focused on her target – and registered the black leather before her.

It was only her slayer reflexes that kept him from being dust. She jerked her arm back with a gasp, noting that he hadn’t even flinched at the near staking.

“Shouldn’t sneak up on a girl like that,” she said, her voice deceptively light. “Good way to get yourself accidentally staked.”

He looked exactly the same. A little more worn around the edges, but otherwise just as she remembered him. White-blond hair, slicked back to tame the mop of curls she knew he hated; eyes that shone with an icy blue fire, piercing her soul; razor-sharp cheekbones that created canyons in the hollows of his cheeks; full, pouting lips, frowning slightly instead of curving into his usual smirk; the eminently sculpted body, the lines and contours of which she’d once known so well, hidden beneath layers of black and the ever-present coat that he wore like a second skin.

“Was counting on you still bein’ able to tell the good guys from the bad guys,” Spike returned, eyeing her carefully. She had to struggle not to squirm under the intensity of his gaze. She was suddenly self-conscious, aware of how much the years had changed her. Sharp edges had rounded out to soft curves, where flesh now concealed her once-protruding bones; tiny, almost imperceptible lines had spidered out from the corners of her eyes; and L’Oreal Iridescent Blonde had grown out to a darker, more natural dishwater, cut in a textured bob that suited her maturity better than the long, flowing locks he’d loved. Vainly, she found herself wondering if he still thought her beautiful, or if, in his mind’s eye, he still pictured the girl he’d left behind, wanting her to remain as untouched by time as he was.

“So, I guess the rumors are true,” she said, tucking the stake back into her waistband.

“Rumors?”

“That you’re, you know, not dead. Again.”

Looking up at him through the curtain of snow, she relived the ten-year-old wave of pain, the crushing double blow that had been the final report from Los Angeles. She was already furious with Giles for his unilateral decision not to send reinforcements to help Angel – a decision she hadn’t even known about until the eleventh hour, though apparently Giles and Andrew had already discussed it and sent back their reply: Angel was on his own. It made Buffy’s blood boil. What good was an army of Slayers, she’d argued, if they weren’t going to fight evil?

But before she could even rally her own Slayer army to defy her Watcher’s orders and go with her to L.A., the word had come back – the battle was over.

And there were no survivors.

That had been bad enough, knowing that Angel was gone, and Wesley with him, and others she hadn’t met but felt responsible for anyway. If only she’d been there, reacted quicker, been more persuasive with Giles. The guilt and the grief that accompanied the news could have lasted her for years, but it paled in comparison to Andrew’s startling and gut-wrenching announcement.

Spike had been among them.

Spike, whom she thought she’d lost forever. Apparently, the little weasel had seen him when he went to Los Angeles earlier that year and hadn’t seen fit to tell her that Spike was alive.

In her renewed anguish, she’d broken Andrew’s nose – and she would have broken a lot more if Giles, with the help of two other Slayers, hadn’t dragged her off, screaming and sobbing. She’d been so close… so close to having him back, and just like that, he was snatched away again. For the second time in a year, her heart shattered into a thousand pieces.

She’d managed to put herself back together the first time – even going so far as to begin dating again. Her lover was gone, after all. She couldn’t mourn forever. But just as her romance with the Immortal had started to settle into the comfort of a long-term relationship, just when she thought she might be able to be happy with someone else, the news of Spike’s second death had undone all of her careful efforts. She’d drawn away from the Immortal, broken and defeated, knowing this was a blow from which she would never fully recover. Spike would always hold her heart, would always hold the power to break it, even from beyond this life.

By the time he resurfaced – years later, when the reports filtered back from the scattered Slayers that a vampire-turned-rogue demon hunter matching his description was operating in the U.S. – she thought she’d experienced every excruciating emotion humans were capable of.

Then, he hadn’t come for her.

Twice, now, he’d cheated death, and still he didn’t seek her out, didn’t even attempt to let her know he was alive. Every day he didn’t come, her heart broke a little bit more. For years, she tortured herself, trying to figure out what she’d done wrong in those last few days, going over every agonizing word they’d exchanged, trying to understand what she’d done to make him stop loving her, until finally, she just shut down. The rollercoaster her heart was on had run its last ride.

She was better off lying to herself, she decided, and she pretended he was dead, ignoring the stories that came in from the other Slayers, closing her mind to the painful reality. She wanted just to mourn for him, spill her grief and move on, so it wouldn’t have to hurt so badly that he didn’t seem to remember or care that, once upon a time, he had loved her.

All of which meant that she was completely unprepared to see him standing there in Highgate Cemetery in the middle of the night. But she wasn’t really surprised, either. Part of her had always expected him, had always waited for him, even while the rest of her was making a brave effort to move on. No amount of denial could ever allow her to let go of him completely, no matter how much her chest ached with his tacit rejection. Even if she never laid eyes on him again, part of her would always still love him.

“Seems that way, don’t it?” he replied, his words pulling her harshly back to the present.

What was he talking about? Oh, right. Him. With the not being dead. “What – what are you doing here?”

He shook his head and sighed. “What do you think, Slayer? Came here to see you.”

“But – why? After all this time?”

“Don’t rightly know,” he said, an admission that felt true, yet at the same time concealed more than it revealed. Spike raked a hand through his hair and dislodged his carefully slicked-back curls. “Listen, could we – go somewhere? To talk?”

She nodded numbly. “My apartment’s a few blocks from here.” She glanced at her watch. “I should be heading back anyway. You’re welcome to come.” He nodded, following her back along the winding path to the cemetery’s main entrance.

“What is wrong with this country?” she groused, more to herself than to him, as they reached the guardhouse next to the padlocked gates. “Who charges admission for a cemetery?” She glared daggers at the welcome sign, which read, Highgate Cemetery, open weekdays 10:00 a.m., weekends 11:00 a.m. Entry £2.00.

Spike smiled slightly. “Isn’t Karl Marx’s grave somewhere in here?”

“And that makes it a tourist attraction?” Buffy rolled her eyes as she began to scale the gate. “Come on, I’m fighting evil here. I don’t have the time to fill out an expense report!”

He snorted at that. “Figure the Council’s paying you now,” he said, following her over the wrought-iron fence. “If you’re living out here.” He landed next to her, scuffing up the light coating of snow with his boots.

“Yeah,” she replied, directing him up Swains Lane to the top of the hill. She waited for him to make some derogatory comment about her selling out for a house in the suburbs, but he didn’t speak again.

He fell into step beside her, and they walked in silence. Small talk seemed like more effort than she could afford to exert, as all her energy was funneled into just keeping her emotions in check. The enormity of their history seemed to weigh them down – despite the years that had passed, the pain of losing him and the sting of rejection were as fresh as the day they’d closed the Hellmouth.

The day he’d used his dying breath to call her a liar.

That was something that had stayed with her through the years, his final denial of her love for him. It was too little, too late. She knew that, and she regretted it every moment of her life. She should have told him every day, instead of lying to herself about her feelings. But by the time that epiphany finally came – sometime during those surreal days before the final battle – it was already too late, and anything she said would sound like goodbye.

Then, it was goodbye, and she had no choice – now or never, Buffy, you have to tell him – and there wasn’t time, no time to make him understand, make him believe her. And so, with eight little words, he’d managed to break her heart forever.

Now, he was back.

But why?

Chapter Text

As they walked through the snow, Spike wondered how the Slayer had come to settle in this quiet neighborhood, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of downtown London. She was just north of Camden, which would have been his kind of place, a haven for alternative lifestyles, with the goths and the punks who wore black and chains and spiky blue hair – if he’d been inclined to fit in with anyone, that is. But only three quick tube stops away, she lived in a different world.

At the door to her apartment, Buffy repeated her invitation, allowing Spike to enter unimpeded. “Well, this is it,” she said, waving a hand in a broad gesture that he presumed was her version of the grand tour.

Before he had a chance to respond, a blonde five-year-old tornado in pink fuzzy pajamas slammed into Buffy’s side, squealing, “Mommy! Mommy!”

Buffy’s demeanor shifted then, and he saw shades of Joyce as she bent down and swung the child into her arms, perching her on one hip. “You should be in bed, young lady,” Buffy scolded her, and though the child appeared sheepish, Spike could see the light in the Slayer’s eyes.

She turned to him apologetically. “I’m sorry, would you excuse us a minute?”

Spike stared after her, speechless, as she escorted the young girl down the hall and back to her bedroom. His stomach churned with indecision, feeling more and more like an intruder with each passing second. Here he was, thinking he could just walk back into her life as though nothing between them had changed.

Of course, nothing had changed – for him. Not a single day had gone by that he hadn’t thought of her, not a night that he didn’t dream of her. She’d consumed him, her memory burning him up inside like a raging fire.

He’d tried to let her go. He’d searched for meaning, purpose, without her, and almost succeeded with Angel and his crew. Though relations had always been shaky at best with his grandsire, theirs was a bond of family that nothing could replace. And Angel had given him something to fight for, something that wasn’t tied to her. Something he could do to prove to himself that the soul was worth the cost.

To prove that he didn’t need her to be his conscience anymore.

But that was before he’d lost everything. Before everyone he had cared about for the past year was taken away from him, before everything he had fought for went up in smoke.

How he’d managed to escape from that alley with his life was a mystery to him. As he watched his comrades fall, one by one, he was sure it was his end as well – as sure as he’d been wearing that amulet. But just as before, he found himself undead – in more ways than one – and forced to start over, cut off from everyone who’d ever meant anything to him.

He spent an entire year drowning in the bottle, trying to salve his wounds with whiskey and hoping to dull the pain of his memories. What was the point of trying, he thought, when trying got you nowhere but shit? He’d died to save the goddamned world, and what had it gotten him? Buffy was wrong. Angel was wrong. There was nothing worth fighting for. He longed for the simplicity of his younger days, when life had been nothing but feeding and fucking. But he could never return to those days, not with the soul haunting him, dogging him at every turn. Even this bout of self-pity chafed his soul, as though trying to tell him he wasn’t following his champion’s destiny.

Well, sod destiny. Destiny was nothing but a cheap soft drink in a fancy chalice.

It occurred to him, with Angel gone, that meant he was almost certainly the vampire with a soul spoken of in the prophecy, the one who would earn the Shanshu reward.

He couldn’t have cared less.

Becoming human merely offered him more ways to die. The only bright side of the deal, in his mind, was that, as a human, this time his death would probably be permanent. Unless, of course, the Powers that Fuck With You had different ideas.

Well, he was done with the Powers and their bloody champions and their stupid prophecies. They could find another vampire with a soul to fuck with. He was done being jerked around.

Who knew how long he’d have wallowed in his misery, if he hadn’t decided, in a moment of drunken stupidity, to pick a fight with a Fyarl demon. Barely able to hold himself upright, he’d gotten his ass well and truly kicked. But that beating had reawakened the fighter in him, and from then on, things were different.

There was no plan. He’d never been good at plans. Even the ones he’d carefully thought out, plotting until they were foolproof, always managed to end up in disaster when he got too impatient for his own scheme. So, he wandered aimlessly, killing demons wherever he found them.

He traveled alone. He’d lost enough friends to convince him that it wasn’t worth it to build connections. He ran into Slayers every now and again, but none that had lived in Buffy’s house, none that had fought at the Hellmouth. He didn’t even know how many had made it out alive, and he resisted the urge to ask for news of the ones he’d left behind. He was better off not knowing.

And, in that way, he’d managed to avoid Buffy for ten whole years. He couldn’t face her – not after everything. Never had he wanted to see her so badly as that last night before the big battle in the alley. Just one chance to hold her, to touch her, one last goodbye. He’d thought himself a fool, all the time he’d wasted, being here with Angel when he could’ve gone to her, and he promised himself, if he lived through this, he’d find her again, Immortal or no Immortal.

But he never expected to live through it.

And he never expected to watch Angel turn to dust, his body already broken and battered from slaying that damned dragon. The shocked expression on his face looked almost peaceful at its end, and he faded into nothingness as Spike slaughtered his killer a moment too late.

In the days that followed, he’d been plagued by survivor’s guilt. Why was he the only one left standing? Why should he live when others more brave than he had fallen? And – worst of all – how could he go to Buffy now, when there was a decent chance he wasn’t the one she wanted? How could he tell her he’d let her lover die? Sure, she’d console him, tell him it wasn’t his fault – and it hadn’t been, not really; death was inevitable in a battle like that, and they’d all known it going in – but really, she’d be wishing it was Angel instead of him who was there with her.

He’d managed to convince himself she didn’t want to see him. Surely, someone would have mentioned he was alive – she had to know. And though his lifestyle had become nomadic since he left Los Angeles, she could have found him if she’d wanted to. After all, Willow had found him when she needed to.

But Buffy never came.

It was really for the best anyway. How far he’d fallen from his hero’s end – he’d died to save the world, returning only to lose the next battle and yet survive to see his failure through. He could live with it, as long as she never knew. As long as she remembered him for who he’d been, even if she’d never loved him, at least she wouldn’t know what he’d become.

But he just couldn’t leave it be. It was a foolish idea, after all this time, but when the phone call he never really expected finally came – from Willow, the first of the Scoobies he’d spoken to since Andrew came to L.A. – it hadn’t even been a choice. He had to go to her. He was hers, just as he’d always been.

He had expected things to be different – and sure enough, the Buffy he encountered in the cemetery had a few extra pounds on her and the beginnings of crow’s feet at her eyes, and for once in her life was wearing sensible shoes to slay in – but for some reason, he’d never imagined her as a mother.

There was no question the girl was Buffy’s – even if he hadn’t just witnessed the little domestic scene, she was the spitting image of her mother. The same button nose, the same mischievous smile, the same blond curls… He’d have known her anywhere.

His eyes fell on the toys strewn across the living room rug, and then were drawn up to the wedding portrait on the mantle, surrounded by smaller, colorful frames chronicling the simple adventures of the happy family. Buffy wasn’t his anymore, was no longer the lonely warrior-child starving for affection, willing to accept tenderness from a dead man’s arms. He’d left it too long. She had a life here, a life that he didn’t belong in.

As his gaze settled on the man’s coat tossed casually over a chair back, his mind was made up. Without a word, he turned and walked out the door, walking out of her life, wishing he’d never come.

Chapter Text

“Who’s that man, Mommy?”

Buffy opened her mouth to respond, but found she didn’t have the words. Who was Spike now? What was he to her? Former lover? Friend?

She finally settled on, “Someone I knew from a long time ago.” She sighed, looking her daughter in the eye. “Someone I love very much.”

“But why –”

“I’ll explain it better in the morning, okay? You should’ve been in bed hours ago, Joy,” Buffy scolded the girl in her arms. “I think somebody’s falling down on the job.” She opened the door to her daughter’s bedroom to find Xander curled up on the edge of the pink-frilled twin bed, fast asleep. Exchanging a look with Joy, Buffy crept to the side of the bed. “Xander?” she said, gently shaking his shoulder. “Xander, wake up.”

“Huh? Wha?” Xander blinked, his bionic eye taking a moment longer to focus than his real one. “Buff.”

Buffy gestured to the empty place next to him. “Guess who’s not in bed right now.”

He groaned, sitting up and running a hand through his dark hair, prematurely flecked with gray. “She wouldn’t go to sleep by herself.”

“She tricked you,” Buffy pointed out as she tucked Joy back into bed. “She knew you’d fall asleep as soon as you laid down. She probably wore you out playing first, didn’t she?”

“Yeah,” Xander admitted. “And I fall for it every time. See, this is why I tell Becca we can’t have children. Leave me in charge, and they’ll be wearing their underwear on their heads and eating too much junk food.”

Buffy glared at him. “Did you give her junk food?”

He paused, eyes shifting uncomfortably. “No.”

“Liar.” Shaking her head in amusement and exasperation, she gave Joy one last kiss on the forehead. “Goodnight, sweetie. Go to sleep this time, please.” Turning back to Xander, she said, “That’s not important right now. Come on.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the bedroom.

Buffy was pretty sure that parading Xander through the house past Spike was not the best way to start whatever conversation he wanted to have, but she only had one door, so she might as well face the situation head-on. Besides, she was too keyed up to care about little things like that. Her whole world had turned upside down with Spike’s sudden reappearance. Everything she’d spent years repressing was suddenly bubbling up to the surface, and there were too many things she needed to say to him, all bouncing around inside her until she thought she’d be sick from the anticipation. She towed Xander through the apartment like a little kid who’d spotted Santa in the mall, practically bounding into the living room.

“You’ll never believe who’s… here.” She stopped cold, trailing off as she took in the empty room and the front door standing slightly ajar, and her heart plummeted to the ground.

“No… no no no, oh God…” Buffy covered her mouth with her hands, cutting off her panicked murmuring. Her chest tightened until she had trouble breathing, her breath coming in sharp gasps. She squeezed her eyes shut and gripped the back of the sofa until her knuckles turned white, fighting against the urge to let her knees give out and follow her heart to the floor, as part of her wondered if it hadn’t been a dream, if he’d really been there at all.

“Buffy, what?” Xander came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. “What’s going on?”

“Spike,” she whispered. “I saw him tonight, on patrol. He – he came back with me, but now he’s – gone.”

“Spike,” he repeated, taking a deep breath. “Wow. I mean… wow. Didn’t expect…”

“I know.”

“Go,” he said suddenly, causing her to turn her wide, brimming eyes on him curiously. “Buffy – run. Find him.”

Buffy started to protest, but he cut her off. “I know. Not exactly the guy you’d expect this from. But I’ve seen you, what you’ve been like without him – he’s the one, Buffy. This is your chance. You gotta get him back.”

She glanced back down the hallway to where her baby was asleep. Xander followed her gaze. “Go,” he repeated. “I’ll watch Joy. I’ll take her over to my place and bring her back in the morning.”

She nodded and headed to the door, then stopped. She ran back and threw her arms around Xander’s neck briefly, pressing a kiss to his cheek before running out again. Xander sighed, grabbing his jacket off the chair and going to collect his charge.

It was an odd feeling, not being jealous of Spike. But after so many years, he couldn’t drum up enough hate to be mad at the guy. Spike was gone from their lives, had been for a long time. If anyone had asked him, back when his hometown was more than a hole in the ground, if Spike being gone was a bad thing, Xander would’ve laughed in their faces. He’d spent years loathing the persistent vampire – a mixture of righteous anger at that which was evil; misplaced vengeance for the vampires, especially Angelus, who had killed and terrorized his friends; and, though he was ashamed to admit it now, jealousy and inadequacy that Buffy would choose Spike over him. It seemed silly now, how long he’d obsessed over the Slayer. It wasn’t until he’d lost Anya – really lost her, in the Hellmouth, not just his stupid wedding-that-wasn’t fiasco – that he’d realized how much time he’d wasted, subconsciously wanting Buffy when all he ever needed was right by his side. He’d let Anya slip away, and now he’d never have another chance.

So, he understood how Buffy felt when she stared at that big crater they’d left behind, could feel her tears as his own when she finally broke down, a few nights later, after the shock had worn off. Spike had been her Anya, and neither of them knew it until it was too late.

It had nearly destroyed her, losing Spike, and there were days when only Xander’s matching grief could console her. As they all began to pull together, rebuilding the Council and gathering the newly empowered Slayers, Buffy and Xander rebuilt the friendship that had become so fractured the last few years in Sunnydale. She began to talk to him, spilling her secrets and memories as easily as her tears, painting a picture of Spike that Xander had never considered before. Spike had been a friend to her – sometimes her only friend, when the rest of them had been wrapped up in their own lives and personal crises. He hadn’t judged her, or asked anything of her, except that she love him back.

It was ironic, Xander thought, that it wasn’t until after he was gone that Spike had become a real person to him. Someone with wants, needs, hopes, fears. Someone who could be hurt, who felt the sting of angry barbs and bruising punches. Someone who only wanted what anyone would want, to matter to someone else, to be loved by someone else.

He’d volunteered to go to Africa, to seek out Slayers there, but also to seek something to help him understand the vampire who would fight to regain his soul, to change, to be a better man. He never really found what he was looking for, and then Buffy’s grieving at Spike’s second death had called him back to Europe permanently.

But he supposed he had the vampire to thank, for Africa was where he’d found Becca. A farm girl in South Africa, tales of whose extraordinary strength led him to her village. He’d brought her to London to be trained with the other new Slayers, not knowing the path they’d take, not realizing, at the time, that his grief could someday be put to rest enough to love another. He hadn’t thought it possible – and still, though they’d lived together for six years, he refused all talk of marriage, as though the ritual itself were the source of his problems – yet, his heart had healed.

Buffy’s never had.

She never envied him his newfound happiness, and he took it as a sign that she still valued his friendship when she retired to London, choosing to live just a few blocks from him. And when the baby came, he was right there to help her out, any way he could.

“Hey, kiddo,” he said softly, waking the girl with a gentle shake. “Wanna sleep over at Uncle Xander’s tonight?”

She murmured something unintelligible, half asleep, so Xander scooped her up, wrapping a blanket around her instead of bothering with trying to get her limp form maneuvered into her little winter coat. He grabbed the overnight bag Buffy always kept packed in case of emergencies – they never knew when Mom might have to rush out after a demon, leaving Joy in the care of Uncle Xander for a day or two – and headed back to his own house, where his beautiful wife – in practice, if not in name – waited for him.

“Don’t worry, sweetie,” he whispered to the little girl in his arms. “Mommy’ll be back. She’s just gotta take care of something tonight.”

Chapter Text

He knew she was following him. He could hear the sound of her sneakers, pounding into the snow as she ran, and like a distant echo, he heard the pounding of her heart, beating out its own rhythm as it drove her on her desperate path toward him.

Against his will, Spike’s brisk pace slowed to a walk, allowing her to close the distance between them, until finally he stopped, closing his eyes and resting his forehead against the metal spires of the cemetery gates they’d only just left behind.

He stopped, and he let himself be found.

“Spike,” she said, panting and out of breath. “Why did you…? You just left.”

He turned slowly to face her, but kept his eyes from meeting hers. “Just didn’t think this was a good idea.”

“But you came all this way…”

“Don’t know where I came from, do you, Slayer?” he snapped, more harshly than necessary.

Buffy’s jaw clenched. “No. I don’t. Because you never cared enough to tell me.”

Her tone was ragged, and he could smell the salt of her unshed tears. He stared, absorbing the blow, knowing he deserved it, before silently turning to go.

“Please,” she said, her voice cracking a bit. “You came here for a reason.”

“Doesn’t matter now.” Spike shrugged, leaning back against the gate, one leg bent at the knee with his foot propped against the wrought iron. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, looked at them, then at her, and reconsidered, stuffing them angrily back into his coat.

“It was Joy, wasn’t it?” Buffy said quietly. “You saw I had a kid, and you freaked.”

“Don’t wanna get in the middle of anything,” he muttered.

“You’re not.”

“You have a family now,” Spike said, shoving away from the gate and turning to leave again. “I… didn’t realize.” She started to say something but he cut her off, throwing the words over his shoulder as he took the first steps away from her. “Don’t wanna intrude.”

Her voice followed him, pointed and deliberate. “I have a daughter.”

He stopped, gazing back at her with a faint look of suspicion.

“I haven’t… I mean, there was a… donor.”

Spike studied her face, still unsure whether to be relieved. “I saw the wedding picture…” he said doubtfully.

Buffy’s eyes widened with understanding. “That was Dawn!” she told him, relieved laughter bubbling up. “She got married last year. To – to a Watcher. They train Slayers in New York now.”

Spike ducked his head, embarrassed now at his mistake, feeling like a fool for running from her without waiting for an explanation.

“Will you… come back?” she asked hesitantly, her fears of rejection returning to her tenfold. He lifted his gaze and met her eyes, unable to hide the regret in his own.

“God, you’re shivering,” he said suddenly, shrugging out of his duster and wrapping it around her. It was only then that Buffy realized she’d run out of the house without a coat. In her panic, she hadn’t even felt the cold.

She reached out with one hand and gently touched his bare arm. “Please come back. I’d like you to meet my daughter.”

He nodded silently and allowed her to lead him back up the hill to her apartment. When he entered the living room for the second time, Spike could see that the blushing bride in the picture had a darker shade of hair than her sister, and the glowing smile was most certainly that of the Niblet.

Spike kicked himself for letting his emotions get the better of him – he’d just seen the couple and the white dress and jumped to conclusions. Next to the wedding photo was a smaller frame with a picture of Buffy wearing a red bandana tied around her head and cuddling a younger Joy, both of them smiling and laughing. The pictures he’d assumed were of the happy family were mostly just of Buffy and Joy; Dawn was in a few, as was Xander, with a woman he didn’t recognize. No husband/boyfriend/father figure to be found.

He was such an ass. Take a closer look before you run out next time, you poncy bugger, he berated himself.

“How old is she?” he asked, fingering one of Joy’s baby pictures.

“She’ll be five this March.”

“Beautiful,” Spike told her. “Like her mum.”

Buffy blushed, and she was glad that he was intently studying the pictures rather than looking at her. “Thank you.”

When he didn’t show any signs of explaining why he was there, she prompted him, “So, what did you want to –”

“Niblet married a Watcher, eh?” he interrupted her, as though he were trying to avoid the conversation he’d come here to have. “Can’t say as that’s a surprise. Only, God…” He squinted at the blond groom in the photo. “Please tell me it wasn’t Andrew.”

Buffy let out a sharp laugh, not quite able to let go of her tension. “No, no. His name is Philip. His father was killed in the First’s attack. A few more years and Philip would’ve been joining the Council, too. Giles convinced him to stick with us. But… he’s nice. Not as tweedy as you’d expect.” They shared a smile, but Spike’s soon faltered.

“Was a crap thing to do to her,” he said, his eyes focusing on the smiling face in the wedding portrait. “Not tellin’ her I was around. Bet she was right pissed, wasn’t she?”

“She was pissed about a lot of things back then.”

“Oh,” Spike replied. Then, with dawning understanding, he repeated, “Oh.” His gaze dropped to his shoes. “Still held a grudge, then, did she?”

Forgiveness was an elusive thing – Buffy knew that well – but Spike had always seemed like such a constant, was always there, and in those final days in Sunnydale, she knew Dawn thought she had all the time in the world to come to terms with what she saw as his betrayal.

Spike’s death had taken Dawn by complete surprise, and she hadn’t been prepared for the regret at the things left unsaid, the fences left unmended. But she had also been proud of him, in a way she hadn’t been for a long time.

And she’d wanted to be proud of him again, when she had heard that he sacrificed his life in a second apocalypse. But the intervening year weighed on her conscience – a condition with which Buffy was intimately familiar. Dawn’s emotions were like a slightly muted imitation of her own, questioning why he hadn’t called, wondering if her own actions had made him feel unwanted, and thinking of all the things she wished she’d told him before that final battle.

But, just like Buffy, Dawn choked on the words when Spike again was counted among the living. Buffy knew she thought of him occasionally. Once, she’d mentioned that she was considering asking Willow to locate him. Buffy hadn’t discouraged her – after all, Dawn and Spike had had a relationship that had nothing to do with her – but Dawn knew that contacting Spike, and finding out he didn’t want to see them, would undoubtedly hurt Buffy more than it would hurt her. Buffy had suffered enough heartbreak already, and besides, he didn’t seem to want to be found. So, Dawn changed her mind and let him be.

In the end, sister solidarity always won out.

“She was upset, mostly,” Buffy told him, remembering the long, hard conversations she’d had with Dawn that first year. “She was hard on you when you first came back, with the soul. She – she felt like she never got a chance to tell you it was okay.”

Spike let out a long, slow breath. “Deserved everything I got from her. Guess I’ll be asking her forgiveness for this, too, now. Shouldn’t’ve kept it from her, even if I didn’t want…”

He stopped himself in time, but Buffy could finish his sentence in her head. Even if I didn’t want you to know. The knot in her chest tightened painfully, at the reminder of how seemingly little he cared for her now, and at the knowledge that it was her fault, that she had been the reason Spike never contacted Dawn.

“Right,” she said, fighting down her emotions with every ounce of control she had. “She’s pregnant, you know,” Buffy blurted out, in a much brighter changing-the-subject tone of voice. “Dawn. The baby’s due in July, but they haven’t announced yet, so you’ll have to act surprised when she tells you.”

“Good for them.” Spike nodded, hesitating before speaking again, and Buffy knew what his next question would be.

“And what’s the story with your little one?”

“I just… wanted a child,” she explained, suddenly feeling more vulnerable than she had throughout the entire awkward conversation. “But I could never seem to, you know, find the guy. I couldn’t get close – not after…” She trailed off, begging him with her eyes to understand her incoherent ramblings, to realize that no one else could ever hold her heart.

He nodded again, seemingly unaffected, and turned back to the mantle.

She didn’t tell Spike that she had pored over descriptions and pictures of donors, looking for just the right match. Pale blond, blue eyes, muscular but compact, cheekbones that could cut glass. It was just one more part of her self-preservation, her game of pretend, that it was his child, that somehow, miraculously, before he died, he’d been able to give her that one last gift. It didn’t matter that the timing wasn’t right. She had no reminders of him – no pictures, no keepsakes, no mementos. Anything she might have kept had been lost when Sunnydale collapsed.

So, she made her own.

“So, where is the bit?” he asked finally.

Buffy furrowed her brow before realizing he meant Joy this time, not Dawn. “Oh – you mean…? She’s with Xander. He baby-sits a lot.”

“Harris is still around, eh?”

“He lives down the street,” she told him. “Lives with a Slayer, actually. Like we didn’t all know that would happen eventually.”

Spike shared her smile. “Boy’s got almost as much of a Slayer obsession as…” He stopped himself, clearing his throat. “Well, anyway.” He raised an eyebrow as something she’d said caught his attention. “‘Lives with?’”

“They’re… together. But he doesn’t want to get married.”

“Ah.” The corners of Spike’s mouth turned up, almost letting the smile return. “Well, some things never change, I guess.”

“No,” she said meaningfully. “They don’t.”

If he wouldn’t start the conversation, she decided, she would do it for him. She was tired of this hollow banter, the feigned interest. Her lover was here, standing in front of her for the first time in ten years. She didn’t want to talk about Xander.

Spike tilted his head to the side, giving her an inscrutable expression. “Buffy…”

“I meant what I said,” she blurted out. She didn’t elaborate.

She didn’t need to.

Chapter Text

Spike closed his eyes and sank down on the sofa, collapsing as though he’d lost the energy to hold himself up. “Buffy, please… don’t.”

“Spike…”

Resting his elbows on his knees, Spike raked his hands through his hair, his head bowed low. “Didn’t come here to go over the past.”

“Just… just hear me out, okay?” If he hadn’t come to talk about the past, Buffy wondered, what had he come here for? “I never stopped. Loving you. I thought I would, but…” She took a seat on the couch next to him. “I thought with time… and… you died, twice, but…”

“Doesn’t help, does it?” he said, a soft, patronizing smile on his lips. He’d been so sure, all these years, had never doubted that her last words were words of pity, nothing more. What else was he supposed to think, when only days before she’d been kissing Angel and saying things like, “Does it have to mean something?” and “Maybe when this is over…” when they both knew full well she didn’t expect them to get through it.

He had known she didn’t love him, and he’d made his peace with it, well before the end – told her as much that night in the abandoned house – so it didn’t bother him so much that she would try to send him out with that last comfort. He appreciated the sentiment, but he made sure she knew that he knew the truth.

It was her final gesture, more than anything, that kept him from going after her once he came back. He’d accepted it for what it was – a goodbye – and he didn’t need her to love him back anymore. So, rather than run off and get his heart broken all over again, he chose to stay and do something good in Los Angeles, and let her go on thinking he died a hero.

Seeing her now, Spike was absolutely certain he’d made the wrong decision.

He didn’t understand the woman she had become, couldn’t read her the way he used to. But he couldn’t deny the sincerity and earnestness on her face and in her voice, and it nearly broke his heart.

Buffy shook her head gently, remembering that he had once been in her shoes, had once loved in vain even after the object of his affection was dead and gone. But that was a long time ago, and his feelings for her had apparently turned to ash along with his body in the Hellmouth. Why else wouldn’t he have come for her?

Of course, that begged the question – why was he here now?

“So, um… before,” she said. “You… wanted to talk.”

Spike looked at her for a long moment, a thousand emotions flickering across his face. If she only knew how she’d just made the conversation a million times harder to start. He couldn’t do it – not now, not after this. He’d hoped, dreamed – but the last thing he’d really expected was to hear that she still loved him.

Then, his hands were tangling in her hair, and his lips were pressed against hers, and neither one could remember why they’d ever doubted the other.

“No talking,” he whispered against her skin, abandoning what he’d come there for. It didn’t matter; nothing mattered except that Buffy loved him. “Just this.” Then, he was kissing her again, and the years melted away, until it felt as though they’d never been apart.

Their bodies remembered each other, and rejoiced at the long-awaited reunion. As they made their way into Buffy’s bedroom, their clothing disappeared as swiftly as every other barrier between them, gentling tumbling into a memory so sweet it hardly felt real.

In fact, it wasn’t real, for their memories had never been like this. Never had they come together with such yearning, such tenderness. Spike bathed in her essence, sending her spiraling skyward with his fingers and tongue, still skilled despite their years of untapped talent. And he was there to catch her when she came floating back to earth, filling her up, filling in the cracks in her soul as his body joined with hers. They moved together in an endless rhythm, one that had carried them through years of sorrow, years of pain and suffering, of loneliness and self-doubt, bringing them back full circle to a moment that contained only love.

*****

Buffy snuggled up next to her lover, sated and spent. With one hand splayed on his chest and her head pillowed on his shoulder, she let out a contented sigh. Yeah, okay, they’d kind of skipped the whole “deep, meaningful conversation” thing where they told each other how much they loved and missed each other, and worked through all their unresolved issues… but then, they’d never really been good at the conversation thing to begin with.

This was perfect; Spike was perfect. Except, now that he wasn’t actually driving her to the brink of ecstasy, her stupid brain wouldn’t shut up.

“Spike?” she said finally, tilting her head up to see his face.

He placed a kiss on her upturned nose. “Yes, love?”

She hesitated over the words, unwilling to break the spell, yet unable to rest until she’d spoken. “You – you never came.”

“Sure I did,” he teased her, nuzzling his face against her temple. “Right after you did that thing… Where’d you learn –”

“I mean – to see me,” Buffy broke in, her voice wavering. “After you… I thought…”

Spike sighed. “Came to Rome once, with Angel. Heard you were all cozy with the bloody Immortal, so we left.”

His hand was stroking idly through her hair, and she leaned into his touch. “You never told me you were alive. If I’d known, I would never…”

“I know, pet,” he said soothingly. “Know that now.”

“I thought you didn’t want me, because you didn’t come.”

“Same here, pet.” He looked down at her. “Guess we’re both fools, then, aren’t we? Both waiting for the other, thinkin’ we weren’t loved…”

“But we are,” Buffy murmured. “I love you, Spike.” Her expression grew serious. “And don’t you dare tell me I don’t, or I will kick you out of this bed and leave you naked in the snow.”

Spike’s face broke into a broad smile as he caught the twinkle in her eyes. “Wouldn’t dream of it, love,” he replied, rolling on top of her and covering her body with his, as he covered her face with kisses. “Love you, Buffy. Always have, always will.”

“Mmm… forever,” Buffy whispered, wrapping her arms and legs tightly around him as he entered her once again.

“Forever,” Spike echoed, rocking them together into a slow, blissful climax.

*****

Buffy dropped onto her stomach when her arms and legs dissolved into a quivering mess, Spike collapsing on top of her, his weight solid on her back as he pulled out with a groan.

“You’re so gentle,” she remarked, thinking back to when he used to pound into her mercilessly from behind. “Even like this. You never used to be.”

“You never let me be gentle, pet,” Spike reminded her quietly, pressing soft kisses along one shoulder, as light fingertips traced a path down the pebbles of her spine. “Liked it better when – when I… hurt you.”

“It made it easier,” Buffy admitted, rolling over to look at him. “Easier to pretend it didn’t… mean anything. But if you were sweet to me, I couldn’t… I didn’t…”

She broke off, her eyes squeezed shut as though holding back tears. Spike lifted one hand up to brush her hair out of her face and kiss her forehead. Before he could muster up the comforting words, though, a wicked grin crossed her face. “But I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to, you know… hurt me, a little bit.”

“Don’t wanna break you,” Spike replied, kissing a trail between her breasts to her stomach.

Buffy giggled. “Slayer, silly.”

But that wasn’t what he meant, and as his lips dotted across her skin, he was glad she couldn’t see the expression on his face.

*****

Spike leaned back against the headboard, his legs sprawled out in front of him. He longed for a smoke, but he knew Buffy wouldn’t allow it. His eyes raked over her body, splayed bonelessly at his side, her feet resting on the pillow next to him, her head near his ankle, where she was teasing him with soft licks and nibbles.

He let one hand slide up his hardening shaft, running his thumb over the head as he fixated on Buffy’s tongue, darting out and leaving shiny trails on his skin. She caught him touching himself and, with a giggle, tilted her head and sucked his big toe into her mouth. Spike’s eyes rolled up, and he began to stroke harder and faster.

“You like that?” Buffy asked, smiling mischievously.

“Could watch your wicked tongue all day, pet.”

“Watch this,” she replied, flipping around and laying across his leg. Her small hands came around his, gently taking over his motion as she flicked her tongue across the tip of his cock.

Spike groaned, and his hand left hers to tangle in her short hair. “God, pet… yeah, like that,” he murmured, as she began to work her mouth farther down his shaft, her hands sliding down to his balls. She’d hardly ever done this for him during their short time together; it was beneath her. The few times she’d consented, it was almost as though she were doing it to punish herself. He got off all the same – not like he could withstand her precious little mouth – but there was never any joy in it.

But this – with her tasting him so earnestly, her eyes so hopeful, so desperate to please – was a sensation he’d never felt before.

Spike’s hips arched off the bed, thrusting himself deeper into her mouth. Moaning a stream of unintelligible words, he gripped the headboard behind him with one hand, the other pressing her head to his crotch. She swallowed around him, her throat tightening against his cock, and then he succumbed, releasing into her with shudder and a mix of colorful obscenities.

Then, she was in his lap, straddling him, and his cock was hardening again before it even had a chance to go fully flaccid. She lifted her hips, squirming until he was inside her again, and then sinking back down against him, her chest pressed against his.

“Do you forgive me?” Buffy asked softly, her forehead touching his as she began to move with him.

Spike’s brow furrowed. “Nothing to forgive, pet.”

“Of course there is! So many things I…”

“Hurt each other plenty, didn’t we? Let’s just call it even and move on, yeah?”

“But if I hadn’t been so…” Buffy made a disgusted face. “If I’d been better to you, maybe you’d have believed me, and you wouldn’t have stayed away so long.”

Spike grasped both sides of her face in his hands. “Here now, aren’t I? ’S what matters.”

“Spike, I…”

The seriousness of her expression stilled his movement. “What is it, love?”

Buffy gazed into his searching eyes, as he tried to understand her sudden melancholic turn. The words were on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn’t bring herself to say them. She dropped her eyes to his chest and rolled her hips to resume their rhythm. “Nothing. Just… I love you.”

*****

As soon as Spike had fallen asleep, Buffy slipped out of his arms and crept to the bathroom. Her shaking fingers fumbled with the prescription bottle until she managed to get the cap off. Gulping down two pills with a swallow of water, she gazed at herself in the mirror, taking in her reflection. She was glowing, in a way she hadn’t for years, and she looked, despite the lines, almost like the young girl she’d been when Spike first wormed his way into her life and into her heart.

Suddenly, the face in the mirror crumpled, and she gripped the sink as harsh sobs wracked her small frame. This was wrong, all of it, so wrong. She shouldn’t be lying here with him. He shouldn’t even be here at all. Not now, not like this. He deserved better than what she could give him. She hadn’t even been able to be honest with him.

After splashing water on her face and patting dry with a towel, Buffy crept back to the bed and snuggled up against Spike. He let out a puff of unneeded breath and unconsciously wrapped his arms around her again. But as she settled into the pillow of his body, she couldn’t sleep. Her heart ached, guilt gnawing at her conscience for what she’d kept from him. She longed to tell him the truth, to open herself up and confide in him; but she couldn’t bring herself to form the words.

It wasn’t fair to him, to welcome him back into her bed, to allow what they’d just done, knowing what she knew, knowing how it would hurt him. No – it would destroy him.

But she was selfish. She wanted him to stay.

Chapter Text

Spike woke up alone.

Reaching a hand over to Buffy’s side of the bed, he found it cold and vacant. She never used to be there when he woke up – on the rare occasions when she allowed herself to fall asleep with him rather than running out right afterwards – except for that first time… and, strangely, the last time. Somehow, he felt like he should’ve known, should’ve seen the end coming, because of that one simple coincidence.

For a brief moment, the familiar memories surfaced and panic seized him, until he remembered that it was her house, and she’d have to kick him out if she wanted to get rid of him. Extending his senses, he could hear her puttering around in the kitchen, and he relaxed, easing his tensed muscles into a languid stretch. Realizing that, despite the early hour, she didn’t intend to come back to bed, Spike dragged himself up and into the shower.

He was just stepping out of the bathroom, towel drying his hair, when Buffy appeared in the hallway.

“You’re up,” she said, taking in his wet, naked form with a smile. He hadn’t bothered to wrap a towel around his waist, and beads of moisture clung to his skin.

“An’ I smell like a pansy.”

Suppressing a giggle, Buffy stepped closer, running her hands over his chest as she took in a deep breath. “Mmm. I believe that’s lilac.”

“Manliest thing I could find in there,” Spike replied, nodding his tousled head toward the bathroom. “You know you don’t own a single bottle of shampoo that doesn’t smell like a flower?”

“That’s not true,” she pouted. “Some of them are fruity.”

Spike snorted, dropping the towel on the floor and wrapping his arms around her, pulling her flush against him. “Feelin’ the need to prove my masculinity, Slayer. Help a bloke out, would you?”

His hands slid up under the hem of her tank top as his head dipped to meet hers in a kiss. Within moments, his eager erection was pressing against her stomach, and one hand was trying to pull her shorts down while the other teased her nipple into a peak.

“Spike, no,” Buffy said, disengaging herself from his roaming hands. “You need to get dressed.” It was hard to turn him down when he was naked and wet and sexy, but Xander would be over with Joy any minute, and she didn’t think they would appreciate it as much as she did. “I made pancakes.”

“I can eat pancakes naked,” Spike insisted, catching her around the waist and pulling her into the bedroom and down onto the bed with him. “Though I’d prefer…” He lifted her top and pressed kisses along her stomach. “…licking syrup off your…”

“No,” Buffy repeated firmly. “Come on, get dressed.”

Spike pouted. “Do I have to?”

“Unless you’d like to be naked when you meet my daughter,” Buffy replied, pushing him off and climbing off the bed. “And, frankly, I think she’s gonna have enough to talk about in therapy without that scarring childhood trauma, so, yeah… I’m thinking pants.”

Kneeling on the edge of the bed, Spike beckoned her closer. When she relented and stood in front of him, he snaked his arms around her waist and gave her a chaste kiss. “For the purity of innocent child eyes, I will put on pants,” he vowed, his accent taking on a mockingly formal William quality as his crystal blue eyes fixated on hers and held her gaze very seriously. “But you must promise to take them off me as soon as the little bit’s not looking.”

Buffy couldn’t help it; she burst into giggles and dropped her head to rest on his shoulder as she shook with laughter. When she was able to catch her breath, she replied, “Just wait ’til naptime.”

A saucy grin spread across Spike’s face. “Deal.”

*****

“So, when exactly did you learn to cook?” Spike asked, in between mouthfuls of pancakes. “Because, from the stories Bit told…”

“Hey!” Buffy swatted him with the spatula she’d used to flip the pancakes. “That is completely and utterly… probably true.” She pouted. “I’ve improved a lot over the years, I’ll have you know… Child to feed and all that.”

“It’s delicious, pet,” he assured her, giving her a sweet, sticky kiss.

“Sorry I don’t have any blood,” she said, knowing that, delicious or not, pancakes weren’t exactly his primary means of sustenance.

“Wouldn’t expect you to.” Spike raised his eyebrows. “In fact, if you did, I’d wonder what other vamps you’ve been entertaining here.”

Buffy ran her fingertips self-consciously over her throat. “You could –”

“No,” Spike cut her off immediately, refusing to even consider the idea of taking her blood. “Not an emergency, love. I can wait.” He pulled her down for a fierce, passionate kiss, effectively changing the subject.

Before the single kiss could spiral into another lusty groping session, they were interrupted by the sound of the front door opening and a familiar male voice calling, “Buff?”

“That’s Xander,” Buffy told him unnecessarily, as though Spike wouldn’t recognize him after ten years. “In the kitchen,” she called back.

“Nervous?” Spike asked her, studying her face for signs of unease. Telling her friends about him had always been one of the hardest obstacles for her.

“About Xander? Nah.” She smiled. “I think you’ll be surprised.”

“Morning, Buff,” Xander said, stepping into the kitchen with Joy in his arms, her golden head resting on his shoulder, her eyes closed. “Think this midget belongs to you. She didn’t get much sleep last night, so she’s still pretty out of it.”

He looked at Spike, completely unflustered by the vampire’s presence, and nodded a greeting. “Spike.”

“Harris,” Spike returned, rising from his seat at the kitchen table. Xander extended his hand as soon as he’d passed Joy off to her mother, and Spike blinked in surprise before taking it. Buffy left the kitchen to lay her sleeping daughter down in her bed, leaving the two men in awkward silence.

“Guess she must’ve found you last night,” Xander said, breaking the ice with a smile.

Spike raised his eyebrows. “Yeah. Uh, you knew…?”

“I was here when she first got back. By the time I made it out to the living room, you’d already split.”

Spike was silent, digesting that information. That explained the man’s coat he had seen last night – the final straw that had driven him out in the first place. All these years, and he’d still almost let himself be foiled by Xander Harris.

“So… how’ve you been?” Spike asked, not at all certain how to have a conversation with this new, civil Xander, given their history.

“Good,” Xander replied. “I figure Buffy filled you in on what we’ve all been up to.”

Spike nodded. “Some. We, ah, didn’t have a whole lot of time for, uh… but she told me the basics.”

Xander gave him a friendly smirk. “She didn’t mention that I stopped hating you about ten years ago, did she?”

“No… no, she, uh, didn’t mention that.” Spike rubbed the back of his neck nervously.

“Relax, man.” Xander clapped him on the shoulder, pulling him closer so he could lower his voice. “You really think I could be there through her grief and not figure out what you meant to her? Dude, you saved the frickin’ world. Long as you make her happy…”

Spike nodded again, accepting the other man’s words as a gift of grace. He knew that Xander had had a lot of time to think and mature, but he still found the difference remarkable.

Xander spared a glance toward the doorway, as though expecting Buffy to return, and said confidentially, “Just… don’t hurt her, okay? She’s… she’s fragile, you know? More than you’d think, and she –”

“I know.”

Something in the way he said it made Xander realize that Spike understood with perfect clarity the situation he was stepping into.

“You – you know about –?”

Spike nodded. “Red filled me in… ’s why I’m here.”

“I’m sorry,” Xander said with sincerity. “Sorry it had to happen this way.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Spike replied, shaking his head. “Can’t help loving her, can I? Even when it gets…” He clenched his jaw, fighting a fierce inner battle to regain control of his emotions. Finally, with a regretful sigh, he said, “Just wish I’d come back sooner, you know?”

Xander put a hand on his shoulder again. “So does she.” Seeing Spike’s curious gaze, he added, “She’d never say it, but it was killing her, knowing how much time she wasted. Knowing there might not be –”

“Hey!” Buffy interrupted cheerfully, coming back into the kitchen. “You guys aren’t making friends, are you? ’Cause that might just blow my mind.”

“What, with that wanker?” Spike said, with a jerk of his thumb, switching gears from the serious conversation the moment she walked in. “Wouldn’t even bother to eat him, let alone socialize with him.”

“Yeah, I still got a stake with your name on it, Evil Dead,” Xander teased back.

“Much better,” Buffy said with a smile. “This is all very comforting and familiar. Xand, can I get you some pancakes or something?”

“Just coffee if you’ve got it, thanks.”

They sat around the kitchen table, the three of them chatting like old friends, and Spike couldn’t help thinking that this was perhaps more remarkable than anything they’d done the night before. He’d always suspected the love was there, if he just dug deep enough, pushed Buffy hard enough – an idea that had gotten him into plenty of trouble, sure, but it didn’t make it any less true – but this kind of acceptance was something he’d never really anticipated.

When Xander finally left, Buffy barely had time to rinse out his coffee mug before Joy came toddling into the kitchen, rubbing at her tired eyes with her tiny fists.

“Mommy, I’m hungry.”

“Sit down at the table, sweetie. I’ll get you some pancakes.”

As Buffy nuked the leftover pancakes in the microwave, Joy climbed up onto a chair and sat across the table from Spike, peering at him curiously. “Hi,” she said, her head tilted to the side as she studied him.

Spike returned her gaze, charmed. “’lo there, Bit.”

“Joy, this is my friend, Spike,” Buffy explained, setting a plate down in front of her and taking the seat next to Joy in order to cut up the pancake for her.

“Is he from the before time, like Uncle Xander?”

“Yeah, he is.” When Spike gave her an inquiring look, she told him, “She means, you know, Sunnydale. When I was the Slayer.”

Spike raised his eyebrows. “You tell her about that?”

“No.” Buffy shook her head. “Just that Mommy fought bad guys, and her friends used to help.”

“Used to?”

Buffy glanced down at Joy’s plate, unsure why she was embarrassed to admit she wasn’t a full-time Slayer anymore. “I’m sort of – retired. I just go out occasionally, you know, for fun. To let off some steam.” She looked back up at Spike. “Xander’s actually retired, too. He’s got his own construction business. But, you know, living with Becca and all, he’s still a little involved.”

Spike just nodded at her rambling. “When did that happen? You retiring, I mean.”

“When Joy was born. I mean, I haven’t really… slayed full time since Sunnydale. I took some time off at first, in Rome.” She made a face. “Technically, I was recruiting Slayers, but… Dawn needed someplace to go to school, and I just…”

“Needed a place to rest?” Spike offered.

“Needed a place to hide.”

“From what?” he asked softly.

“Everything,” Buffy said with a sigh. “I just… didn’t want to face it anymore, not without you.” She glanced up and met his eyes with a sad smile. “And it was easy, you know, not being the only one anymore. I could just ignore it all, pretend I was someone else.”

“Never could figure why you picked Rome,” Spike replied. “Didn’t seem like you… but now I think I’m getting it.”

“What?” She looked at him quizzically.

“’S comforting, innit?” When she still didn’t seem to get it, he added dryly, “That city is the world’s biggest crypt. Bet you felt right at home.”

A discerning smile crossed Buffy’s face. “Yeah. Anyway, after I heard you were dead, you know, the second time… I left everything and came back to England. Giles put me to work training the new Slayers, and that’s what I did until Joy came along.”

“Left… everything?” Spike prodded.

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Yes, Spike.” She tried to maintain a serious expression, but it was a lost cause. “I left the Immortal because I was so upset that you died again. Happy?”

“Very,” he said with a satisfied grin.

Nervously, Buffy began playing with the edge of a placemat. “What about – what about you? I mean, were there… others?”

Spike let out a deep sigh and raked a hand through his messy curls. “Not gonna lie, pet. Haven’t exactly been a monk. There were women, yeah, but none of ’em ever meant to me what you…” He trailed off, dropping his gaze to his lap.

He had been a drifter, never setting down roots anywhere long enough to make connections, but occasionally, he’d find a woman who was drawn in by the striking features, the leather, and the mysterious nature. A woman who pushed past the innocent flirting to engage the dangerous stranger who haunted the local bar. He’d stay with them for a couple weeks at a time, at most, before picking up and moving on without a goodbye, never letting himself get close enough to lose his heart. He knew what that would lead to, and he knew he could never replace Buffy, nor did he want to.

“That’s… that’s fair,” Buffy said slowly.

Slouching back in his chair, Spike sighed again, this time with a note of disgust. “God, pet. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. We weren’t… You shouldn’t…”

“I know that, ’s just… feel like I shoulda known better, you know? Knew the whole time there’d never be anyone for me but you, and I still couldn’t put my damn pride away and come find you until…”

He stopped himself, but Buffy caught the expression on his face. “Until what, Spike?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly. “Until now.”

“Spike?” Buffy said, a growing sense of dread forming in the pit of her stomach. “You never said… before, you said you came here to talk, but we never really… did we? Talk about it?”

“Don’t worry about that, love. It’s not important anymore.”

“Yes, it is. Why are you here, Spike?” she asked, her voice wavering, certain now she knew what his answer would be. “Why now?”

“You know why, Slayer,” he told her reproachfully. “Willow tracked me down.” He paused and took a deep, steadying breath.

“She told me about the cancer.”

Chapter Text

There was exactly one moment in his life that was worse.

Watching Buffy plummet off Glory's tower, helpless to do anything to save her, Spike had never felt so sick with despair. He didn't think anything would ever make him feel like that again.

Willow's phone call came close.

He didn’t even know how she’d found him – magic, no doubt. Just dumb luck that he had been staying in a hotel with a phone that day, instead of an abandoned building or his blacked-out car. He didn’t steal money anymore, not with the soul, and it wasn’t like he could hold down a real job for any length of time. He played poker, and won some, but humans tended to look unfavorably on kittens as currency. Money was scarce, and he could rarely afford a proper bed to sleep in. He’d lived in worse places in his hundred and twenty-odd years, so he usually didn’t mind the dirty, cramped quarters where he ended up laying his head. But the night before, he’d had a nasty run-in with a Gravlok demon that had broken most of his ribs and dislocated one shoulder, and he didn’t think he could bear the stiff neck he’d get from sleeping in the backseat of his old Pontiac GTO.

That was how he had found himself passed out on the queen-sized bed, only to be awakened a few hours later wondering who could possibly be calling for Mr. George C. Pratt. (He’d long ago given up using any variation on the names Spike or William when checking into hotels. Made it easier to hide.)

He had lain on that bed for hours, sobbing until there was no more water left in his body. Cursing the unfairness of the universe, railing against the Powers That Be for rewarding their noblest warrior with death. With worse than death – with a disease that would ravage her body before it killed her.

But once he’d cried out all the anger and grief and guilt, he realized something. She wasn’t dead yet. And that was why Willow had called.

“She thought I’d wanna see you again, before…” Spike trailed off now, staring down at his hands, unable to meet her eyes, afraid of losing control. If he started to cry again, this time he might never stop.

Buffy reached out and covered his hands with hers. “I’ve still got a long time. It’s – it’s the early stages yet.”

He knew she was lying. Willow had told him she’d already been through radiation therapy and three rounds of chemo, and still the cancer was spreading, from her lungs to her chest wall and her lymph nodes, and starting on the blood vessels leading to her heart. Cancer cells, it turned out, benefited from the same slayer healing as the rest of her, and regenerated themselves almost as soon as they’d been irradiated.

He’d seen the picture of her, on the mantle next to Dawn’s wedding photo, with the scarf wrapped around her head to hide the loss of her hair, just as her mother had done before her. She’d never tell him, but he knew that if he’d come just a month earlier, he’d have seen her struggling to breathe, until she was required to have surgery to drain off a collection of fluid on her lung. Pleural something or other, Willow had called it.

Fortunately, that was one of the only complications she’d had. She was more susceptible to infections, just like any cancer patient, but her slayer healing powers had generally taken care of anything that came up. It didn’t really matter, in the end. The cancer itself was more than enough to kill her.

Spike studied her carefully. Outwardly, she wasn’t showing any real symptoms – Willow had called it “one of the better phases,” when she was in between chemo treatments, so she wasn’t worn down or nauseous all the time, and her condition was relatively stabilized. But Willow had also mentioned that this might be one of the last “better phases” she had.

Spike swallowed hard. “Buffy…”

She smiled at him, putting on the brave face he knew so well. But after their last year together, Spike also knew what she concealed behind the mask, and that nearly broke his heart.

“I’m not afraid to die,” Buffy told him. “I’m kind of unique in having experienced it before.”

A painful sob escaped him, and he pulled her onto his lap, holding her close, his forehead pressed against hers. Her fingers threaded gently through his curls, and she made soft, soothing noises against his cheek, comforting him, even though he felt like he should be comforting her.

They stayed like that for a long moment, no tears between them, just an ocean of sadness.

Finally, Buffy drew in a deep breath and lifted her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should’ve – I should’ve told you right away last night, instead of letting you…”

“Letting me what, pet? Love you?”

Buffy closed her eyes tightly for a moment before looking at him. “Spike… last night was – like a dream. But…” – and she could feel her heart breaking as she said it, but she had to let him go – “…you don’t have to stay. I don’t expect – it’s not fair to you, the guy who’s gonna be young and beautiful forever, having to stick around and watch me die.”

He took her hand in his and brought it up to kiss her palm. “No place else for me to be, love, ’cept with you. Knew the score last night… wouldn’ta done any different if you’d said something.”

Buffy’s hand slipped out of his, her fingers tracing the curves of his face as though memorizing them by touch. “I can’t believe you’re really here. I thought… when I first heard the diagnosis, I wanted to – I almost asked Will to find you. But I thought – what could I give you, you know? It was too late…”

“Not too late, pet,” Spike soothed, cradling her closer. “’S just… I’m sorry. Sorry it took this to get me here.”

“Mommy!” Joy said insistently. Having grown tired of being ignored, she chose that moment to try to crawl into Buffy’s lap, breaking the moment and prompting Spike to ask, “What’ll happen to the little bit?”

“Dawn’ll take her,” Buffy replied, sliding back to her own chair and lifting Joy onto her lap.

“Are you gonna be my daddy?” the little girl asked, turning her wide, curious eyes on Spike. “I never had a daddy. Mommy said he was far away.” She tilted her head to the side, examining him. “Is it you? Did you come back?”

Spike noticed she spoke with a warped North London accent, no doubt polluted by her mother’s Valley-speak. Then, suddenly, it hit him: Buffy’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed child with the British accent.

He almost cried.

“Yeah,” Buffy whispered, her voice thick with tears. “He did.”

Joy slid down from her perch and crawled into Spike’s lap, wrapping her arms around his neck with easy acceptance. Spike’s eyes locked with Buffy’s as he embraced the small child.

“You know neither one of us is a natural blond, right?” he asked her, tousling Joy’s hair.

Buffy smiled sheepishly. “I know, but… that was how I remembered you, so I…” She shrugged.

Spike returned her smile. “Gonna be a stunner when she grows up,” he remarked, as Joy made herself comfortable on his lap. “Real heartbreaker.”

“Are you kidding?” Buffy teased. “With you as a father? She’ll never be allowed to date!”

“What are you talking about?” Spike asked indignantly.

“Oh, come on. I saw how you were with Dawn.”

“Hey, but that pillock was actually a vampire,” he defended himself, “and you were the one who –”

“Don’t try to deny it. You’re gonna be super-overprotective dad every time she brings a boy home. Probably go all fangy just to scare them away.”

Spike raised his eyebrows. “Oh, and you’re not overprotective? If she’s anything like you, she’ll be sneakin’ out her window by fifteen, love, ’cept you’ll be standing underneath waiting for…” Buffy’s face clouded over, and he rolled his eyes at his own stupidity. “God, I’m sorry, pet.”

“Don’t be,” she soothed him. “I told you, I’m not afraid to die.”

Spike looked down to where he was scuffing his bare toe against the kitchen floor. “There are… ways, to – to…”

“I don’t want to be turned,” Buffy said, in a quiet, firm voice.

His head snapped up. “I didn’t – I meant… healing spells, or – or we could –”

She cut him off with a shake of her head. “Spike. I’ve had this conversation already, several times, with Will, and Giles… and I don’t want that. I’ve already lived much longer than I should have, died twice as many times as most people… I just want… this time, I don’t need to fight it.”

It’s not enough time! he wanted to shout, but he bit his lip and nodded. It was her life, after all, her choice.

“I’m not sixteen anymore. I’m not running away from some prophecy.” Buffy’s mouth quirked into a small, wry grin. “Although, when you think about it, a doctor’s prognosis sounds an awful lot like a prophecy.”

Spike clenched his jaw. It was so mundane, so meaningless. She who had given her life to save the world – twice – would, in the end, have it snatched away for nothing.

“I’m not… saying I give up, either. But I don’t know how much time is left, and I don’t want to spend it all looking for some miracle cure, when the important things are right here.” She reached out to run a hand through Joy’s hair, before glancing up to meet his eyes.

“Spike? Will you – will you stay?”

“Forever,” Spike whispered.

For as long as they had.