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It wasn't like she thought it would be, seeing him again, and oh how she'd thought about it. But she didn't know then, the pain that would be in his eyes, so different from Angel's pain, even through the familiarity. But she understands it, understands surviving in a world that's not quite your own

((I think I was in Heaven...))

and forgiveness had come to her more easily than she'd anticipated. The bitterness in the back of her throat is only a habit, a dim memory of a fear she doesn't have to feel around him anymore, she realizes, and so tries to ignore it as much as possible.

Over hot chocolate and marshmallows, they'd talked about the small and seemingly inconsequential things. He knows her better than she knows him now, and so she'd spent those hours getting to know who he is, this changed vampire with the same face and a brand-spanking-new soul. She'd talked to him about taking Dawn on patrols, weighing his reaction

((worry, fear, acceptance))

with every word she'd tossed out, and about the newly rebuilt Sunnydale High and about Xander and Anya's tentative steps toward a new relationship, maybe new like theirs would be, and about Clem and Passions--which she had started watching in his absence--and Giles and Willow.

She'd talked so long she realized that she was getting to know the new him through her own words, through his expressions and attentive silence, the different look in his eyes that was still the same, admiring and blush-worthy, whenever she moved. This man had been inside her.

But not really.

That man, the man whose love had been flattering and fascinating and scary and deadly

((I'm going to make you feel it!))

was so changed and the same, it was bizarre. Perhaps because she had gotten to know the Angel-with-a-soul before the Angelus-without-one first, it was an easier, if more heartbreaking transition. But she has had to relearn Spike's gestures and figure out the new inflections in his voice because he'd been gone and some things never change and some things are always changing.

This line of thought is repetitive and confusing and painful and she hates it, she thinks with a sudden fierceness.

He had been disappointed to find Dawn sleeping at a friends' house; he'd wanted to see her, and she wonders at how such love can transfer itself from one person to another, at how it lingers if it's enough.

So now she's all talked out and melancholy, nursing her fifth hot chocolate even though she's far too full for it, and watching a still, unbreathing vamp sleep on her couch.

Buffy remembers the look on his face when he first saw her, standing in front of him, that shock and regret and hope and amazement before he'd managed to mask his expression into nothing, and knows that he had not planned on coming to her door tonight, if ever. Knows that he would have watched the house in the shadows, stalking her in not-quite-the-same way, and then gone onto what looked to be a solitary life of grief and remorse.

Surprisingly, one of the hardest things about reconciling herself to the new Spike is letting go of the old one. The one who'd tormented her, and loved her, and grieved for her and kissed her and listened and made love to her and tried to violate her. She hadn't been in love with him, but she'd felt something... still feels something... that she doesn't know quite how to describe.

She misses that Spike, which is bad enough.

But this new one... Has a worrisome sort of potential.

Buffy sighs, hating her propensity for vampire boyfriends.

* * * * *

When she wakes up, cramped and uncomfortable on the couch, her arm underneath her almost completely numb, she can see the pale glare of the sun coming through the closed curtains. She remembers sitting next to him, the soft crispness of his gelled hair under her palms--he gels it to keep the curl out, though it never works completely and she isn't sure why he keeps doing it at all; his curls are nice--as he slept, and then... a wonderful nothing for several long hours.

It's exhausting, this concern and bewilderment.

She knows he's in the other room--why close the curtains if not to escape the sunlight, and anyway she can smell coffee--but she takes her time getting up, curling under the blanket he apparently set over her in the night and wondering if anyone has comforted him yet. Clem, maybe? But then, Clem's idea of comfort, sweetly optimistic demon that he is, is probably a pat on the back and a perky, "It'll get better soon!"

She's pretty sure there hasn't been anyone else since he got back. Possibly since before he left. God knows, she tried to never take him seriously, even when she knew she was hurting him.

Again, she reminds herself, you're relating to the wrong person.

Only, is she really? Because, for all his pain, he seems to... care about her like he used to. If in a much less scary way.

Finally she forces herself off the relative comfort in the couch, feeling again all of those twisty aches she was ignoring, and hobbles her way into the kitchen. Spike stands in front of the stove, sipping a cup of what she assumes is coffee. Or maybe they'd had a stray bag of blood left in the freezer.

"You okay, Buffy?" he asks slowly, as if hesitant to initiate conversation, but nods toward her general limpy-ness.

"I'm good," she assures him, liking the worry she reads in his eyes. "Slept weird."

"Yeah, I..." Trailing off, he looks down into his coffee mug. "I didn't mean to fall asleep on you. I'll get out of your way soon as the sun sets."

This surprises her and she pauses mid-shoulder-roll. Taking a couple of deliberate steps toward him, she waits for him to look back up and into her eyes. She wants him to see how serious she is, how serious she was the previous night. That was no dream, Spike. You have the right to believe in something better than your loneliness.

She doesn't say this, though. Instead what comes out when he finally meets her gaze again is, "I told you last night, you're safe at home with me."

((Safe as houses.))

He remains silent, and she can see the fear in his eyes, a fear that's familiar to her, the fear of trusting too much. It seems like the right moment to touch him but her hands are frozen still because even she doesn't know what this new thing between them is and since she can't define it, it's hard to push forward with it.

And then he touches her, just a light graze of his fingertips against the hair behind her ear, so like that night he saved her from dancing to death, and something in his gaze tells her that he's starting to believe it, whether or not he wants to. She could hurt him again, in so many ways, if she felt like it.

He could hurt her too.

They stay motionless, staring into each other's eyes, and Buffy wonders when it was that she realized he really loved her. The kiss in his crypt after he refused to give Dawn up to Glory? No, after that. Catching the blade of the sword in his palms as it sliced its way toward her head

((so much blood and he didn't complain, and I never thanked him and I got used to that level of protection from him, because.... because....))

through the roof of the motor home.

There were so many signs and gestures and she accepted none of them as anything other than obsession, or perhaps a twisted longing for death, precisely what he'd accused her of once.

But what finally convinced her that his love for her was real, regardless of his lack-of-soul, and true, was his selfless fall from the tower when he tried to save Dawn's life. He did that for Dawn too, of course, but in part for her, because of her, because he loved her and knew that her sister's death would break her heart.

Because he didn't want her to live with that kind of pain.

And it all made sense, what he'd said after Glory had tortured him, how he couldn't live if she was hurting so badly, the tenderness of their shared kiss that day, and the declaration, not of love, but of acceptance at the foot of her stairs

((I know you'll never love me...))

before they'd gone off to battle, and she knew that he'd never lied about his love for her. She should have known sooner--Spike was nothing if not honest.

His hand slides into hers and she slides too, startled, out of her reverie, feeling the callouses on his palm and the gentle roughness of how he holds her hand, like he's unused to such displays of affection. Which he probably is, she thinks. His displays of affection usually tended to be violent.

Not that she didn't encourage that at one time.

But this is nice, standing in the kitchen, holding his hand and looking at him, really looking at him, and smelling coffee, almost like a couple. That's not what they are, not yet and maybe not ever, but it feels like it, and it's... good.

Her stomach rumbles and Spike chuckles

((such a good sound, such sweetness in it, why wouldn't I ever let myself see his sweetness before?))

and releases her, turning to the refrigerator with a backward glance and a wry smile as he opens it. "Hungry, love?"

"Starving," she admits, and isn't really certain what she's starving for.

"How 'bout you sit down while I make you breakfast?"

"You can cook?"

"I'm over a century old, Pet. I can do a lot of things," he says, hunting intently through their store of food, and her heart thumps as a surprised sort of arousal streaks through her, and she remembers the sorts of things he can actually do.

She shakes it off. It's neither the place nor time.

"All right. Just--no English food."

* * * * *

For lack of anything more interesting to do, and because he can't leave, because she doesn't want him to, Buffy finds herself playing cards eleven in the morning with a cheating vampire. And it's a relief, that he cheats; she likes that she still knows him a little bit. Even if he's still not fast enough at sneaking the occasional ace into his hand to fool her.

She remembers her birthday, when they played cards for hours, unable to leave the house even as the sun rose and the night became morning and how comfortable she was with him. He cheated then, too, but what the hell, it was one of the only relaxed times she's ever had with him, so she's chalking the memory under 'good.' Until, of course, he had threatened to eat her psuedo-date, which is the part of the memory she chooses to ignore.

She's ignoring a lot of things, she knows, but sometimes that's the kindest thing to do. The easiest thing to do. The easiest way out. Because she realizes that she's not over... some things, what happened the night he left, what she now refers to in her head as the bathroom incident. Only now, she's able to pretend that it wasn't his face above her, his hands tearing at her clothing and holding her wrists to the cold linoleum. That was another Spike.

He'd loved her too. Of that much, she's sure.

She wonders how long he'll love her for, that old Spike, and this new one too. She wonders how long she wants him to love her.

Nothing is simple anymore. Not that it ever was.

And then they hear the banging of the door and look up as Dawn announces herself, "Hi, I'm home, sorry I'm late!" and then stops, her overnight bag thumping to the ground in the awkward silence as she stares at Spike, who stands up and is looking back at her with gladness and welcome and... expectation.

And Buffy winces, knowing that she should have prepared Dawn, should have prepared Spike, hating that Dawn has been tainted by Xander's version of events

((even if it's the real version))

and wishing for a better welcome for Spike from the one who liked him almost unconditionally before. But Dawn says nothing for a long time, long enough for Spike to become uneasy, shifting from foot to foot, stuffing his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans.

"Hiya, Platelet," he finally mumbles, breaking his gaze from hers.

"Spike," she says back, with a faint anger that Buffy realizes is only starting to build. Dawn knows about his soul too, but as the sister of the aggrieved party, it's harder for her to forgive than Buffy herself. The standard, I can hurt my sister in any way I want, but when you do it, you're dead approach.

Only, he wasn't the one who did it, not exactly, and Buffy tries desperately to figure out a way to fix this before it gets ugly.

She doesn't need to.

Dawn looks at Buffy for guidance and Buffy sighs with relief and nods with a smile, and then Dawn's anger just seems to melt and she turns back to Spike, happy for his welcome now, with some welcome of her own spreading over her face. Spike relaxes visibly, and holds out his arms.

Dawn goes straight into them.

Buffy watches, a little sad. Knowing she should have offered a hug to him herself. Knowing why she didn't.

* * * * *

After night falls, they patrol, and it's like it always has been with him. She feels no need to watch her own back or, worse yet, distract herself by protecting him. Their movements in a fight are graceful, fluid, a slow-motion dream world in the midst of an inescapable real world that's too fast to manage. Riley could hold his own, but she never had this feeling with him.

There were quite a few feelings she never had with him, actually.

There aren't that many vampires out tonight and during one of the longer lulls, she asks him how it happened an instant before she realizes that maybe she shouldn't. And that maybe it shouldn't matter.

Spike is silent for a long while, but it's not the silence of someone being unwilling to answer; it's the silence of an answer being prepared, so she decides not to feel too bad for asking in the first place. If he's thinking about what to say, then maybe he wants to tell her after all.

They walk over to a low cement wall, and she hops up to sit on it, kicking her legs rhythmically like a five-year-old. She takes this moment to study Spike, because he still hasn't said anything. His features are sharp and pale and beautiful in the moonlight, like everything about him is, only there's a definite change. The expression of hesitancy. The lack of smugness. That day, he had seemed the same, accent, banter, charm, all checked firmly in the 'yes' column, but she knew he wasn't.

Finally, just as she's about to rescind the question, Spike props himself against the wall and looks at her. She stays motionless, feeling as though he's searching for something and then apparently he sees it, because he nods shortly and starts to fumble around in his coat pocket for his cigarettes. That's another thing; she still has his duster. She'll have to remember to bring that up later.

When his cigarette is lit, he changes it carefully to his opposite hand to make sure none of the smoke gets in her eyes or lungs and she's almost touched by the small gesture of chivalry. But then, Spike was always doing those things, those thoughtful little things that made it so easy to forget sometimes that he was a demon.

"I went to Africa," he says, then pauses for another long minute. "I had to go through some trials... Fightin' a bloke with fire hands, a couple demons, bugs crawlin' around beneath my skin, that sort of thing. Buffy, I..."

"You what?" she prompts softly after his voice fails him and it doesn't look like he's going to go on.

"I'd heard about this guy, this demon, who could grant... Sort of wishes. Not like Anya, you know, but the kind you earn. After--after that night--I wondered why I hadn't... You know. You, Slayer, me, demon. That sort o' thing. It hurt to wonder, but I did." He takes a deep draw on his cigarette, turns away from her and blows the smoke out. She's starting to hurt, herself. She thinks she knows where this is going, but he needs to say it.

"When I left, I wasn't sure what I was goin' to be askin' for. You know. I... I still got this chip. Was thinkin' about it back then, that maybe... But even then I knew that it wasn't really what I was goin' after." He stubs the cigarette out on the wall and then turns to her, his eyes apologetic and miserable, and everything regretful that there is in the world. "I was bitter then, though, that I hurt so bad an' over you, the Slayer and all. By the time I got out of the state, I knew it wasn't something I could ask for, to get this chip out. I was still in love with you, an' knew you wouldn't ever... It just wasn't the way to go."

And then he stops, and she knows he's done for good and there are a lot of things that she needs to ask him about what he said. Only, later. Later, she can ask him these things and possibly not feel so hurt and sick, even though she understands his motivation at the time. But now, the thing that comes out of her mouth, surprising both of them, is, "Was?"

This catches him off guard and he blinks. "What?"

"You--you were in love with me?" she asks and then hears herself continue--yes, oh god, she's really going to say it, "You're not anymore?"

He stares at her, slightly openmouthed. The word flabbergasted pops into her head, something that Giles no doubtedly said one time, and she has to fight back a smile at this somber moment.

"Yes, I was," he whispers at length. "Yes... I still am. Love isn't something you just get over, is it? Not with a soul or without one. Sometimes, if it's the right sort of love, it just stays with you. Is that okay?"

She thinks about the things he used to say to her during sex. She had mostly pretended not to hear them because if she heard them she would have to either acknowledge them or confront him and neither option was viable at the time. But the things he said

((pretty, pretty Buffy, love you so much my angel, my sun, so hot, so tight and wet yes yes yes oh, fuck I love you love you love you come with me, for me, come on baby you can do it sweetheart, just one more time, love you angel, my star, my love, my heart))

as he'd pounded into her, kissing and licking into her mouth, making her feel breathless and blurry, these things he'd said, both romantic and raunchy, these things stayed with her, and she understands now without a doubt that they were real.

"Yes," she answers, and it really is.

* * * * *

Three more nights pass before she remembers to mention his duster, still hanging in her closet, slightly separated from the rest of her clothes looking lonely as it swings on the hanger. He hasn't returned to his crypt yet--she thinks he will, sometime, but some part of her hopes that he'll just stay. He's amazingly easy to get along with, this Spike, even if she still hasn't found a way to tell Xander or Anya that he's back yet.

She brings the long leather coat downstairs. The smell of his cigarette smoke still clings to it, or maybe that's only in her imagination because she associates both things with him. When she gets downstairs, she goes into the living room and finds Spike and Dawn on the couch, both tugging on the remote control, both laughing hysterically. Dawn wrestles him so that he's half-lying on the sofa, her little elbow pressing into his stomach so hard that just looking at it makes Buffy wince. But it's nice to see him laugh, really laugh, and look so carefree. She doesn't remember him looking like that since... ever.

Especially lately. Let him have all the fun he wants, she decides. His pain has somehow become her pain or some reminder of her past pain, so if he can lighten up, it's a good thing.

When Dawn finally wrenches the remote from his grasp, she's wheezing and grinning, and she sits up with a start when she realizes that Buffy is watching.

"Didn't see ya," Dawn says and good Lord, Buffy's grateful for the cheerfulness of her little sister's tone. It's been a while since that, too.

Spike struggles into a sitting position, flashing a smile at her that she's only seen while she was under him or over him or in some other compromising position. A laughing, warm, secret smile. It fades almost immediately, of course, as if he's remembering something he shouldn't have to remember, but the remnants remain. His eyes are locked on the coat.

She senses she's done something wrong

((again?))

and shifts nervously as Dawn shoots them both a look and says, "I think I'll... umm... Go upstairs with the remote. Y'know, celebrate the spoils of war by myself."

Neither of them comment as she goes upstairs, but Buffy manages a nod and a smile before turning back to Spike, and she hears him murmur, "The spoils of war..."

He's still looking at the coat.

And then she remembers, that was how he got it, in a war he waged against an innocent life, one of my own, one just like me only dead now because of him. And she feels bad inside because she still wants him to have it if he wants to take it back. It's him. Or it was before.

It's still difficult drawing the line between the two of them.

So she holds it out and says, "I've had it, while you were gone. In my closet."

Slowly, Spike stands and draws closer, looking from the coat back to her face as he approaches, as if asking permission. She can see so many expressions on his face--he hates how he came by the coat, but she was right, it's a part of him, and he hates himself for wanting it back so badly. But that doesn't stop the wanting.

It's hard to stop the wanting. She knows that for a fact.

Buffy gently holds it out and his hands caress the leather for a few seconds before grasping it and pulling it away from her. He starts to put it on.

And then the question comes into her head again, the frightening one that's been haunting her, as she watches him transform into what he used to be and what he can be all at the same time. The question scares her because she's still unsure of her own motives in wanting the answer, and scared of how he would answer.

She's fairly certain that if she had reason to ask Angel this question, his answer would break her heart, and she doesn't want to give Spike the chance to do that too.

The coat is on, and he looks... like himself. She takes it in, the lines and the angles of him, the sharpness of his cheekbones, the curve of his lips, cool lips that she could lend heat to by kissing them for long, slow, moist minutes, and her eyes dip down to follow the fit of the duster. It fits right. But then, it always has.

Maybe for a different reason now, though. Maybe... as a reminder, in memory rather than triumph.

And then it's on the tip of her tongue, the question, and sliding out of her mouth before she can stop it. If she would.

"If I..." Her voice cracks and she clears her throat to try again. Spike is quiet, watchful, patient, somehow understanding that this is important, and different from her other questions. "If I let myself... I *could* let myself fall... Would you

((catch me?))

be able to accept me despite the things that I've done? The things that I've done with you, or the other...you? All of the things... Would you be able to understand? Even when people say they love you and know you, so it's okay, some wouldn't be able to understand..."

And, startled, she sees that he knows all of the things that she's done, good and bad, knows her better than any of her other lovers have at least on a more literal scale, because he's been here, with her, the longest. So his answer is important for so many more reasons than she originally thought. So was her question.

Which was an apology in some way. For how she treated him when. For the things she said, and the things she didn't say, and the things she never let herself think or understand or accept as true. For all of the carelessly cruel words and barbs and emotional rejections because at the time, he just wasn't important to her. For all of the punches that she landed when she could have just stepped aside and walked around him.

And Spike is doing that openmouthed thing again, amazed and afraid and maybe a little delighted, or something like that because she can see a curious sort of elation in his eyes that hasn't quite sunken in yet. But she waits, waits for his answer and whatever joy or blow that will come with it.

His thumb traces the dip of her upper lip, and the curve of the bottom one, and once his astonishment is gone it's replaced with such tenderness that she wants to cry. "I always understood," he says softly. "I always knew why you came to me, that you were hurting so much. I knew I was your only comfort in a world you didn't want. I know why you did everything you did."

She smiles just a little thinking, you're still being my comfort, aren't you?

"You called me dark. Like you," she breathes, or possibly whimpers as she remembers how much it hurt to believe it when it was first said.

"I was full of shit, wasn't I?" he returns flatly. "And I knew that too. I wanted to give you a reason to stay with me, any reason, because I didn't want to lose you. But you belong in the light, love, you always have. Your calling keeps you in the dark. Your nature pulls you out of it. It's the very reason I fell in love with you." He smiles faintly. "You're incorruptible."

And then she sighs, leaning into his hand which has started stroking her jaw, and he turns his palm into her cheek, lightly molding his fingers against her face, and there are too many things not being said so that they can be felt, too many moments passing them and not enough time to catch up. But none of it matters because his fingers, like his mouth, get warm when pressed against her and it feels so good and for the moment, so does she.

* * * * *

It hasn't been too long when Buffy realizes that they've domesticated each other. He calms her down, he makes her feel safe

((strange turn of events))

and in return, she continues to forgive him. She doesn't try to pretend that it's not an ongoing battle, to forget what happened between them before, but it's a battle that's getting easier as the days and nights go by and he doesn't even mention their former relationship.

If she had spent this amount of time with the old Spike, he would never lay off the innuendo and reminders. But the new one doesn't hesitate to change the subject when the conversation turns too close to what they'd had at one time, when he sees her face tighten with nervousness because she's just not ready to discuss what happened.

So yes, she forgives him. Every day she forgives him. Like he used to save her every night

((dozens of times... lots of different ways. Every night I save you))

and she wonders if he still feels the need. She wonders how long she will.

They fight, sometimes. The basic squabbles of everyday life; did you use my toothbrush, that's disgusting; I'm a vampire, I shouldn't be getting sodding dishpan hands by having to do the dishes; go out of the house if you want to smoke, I don't care if the sun's still up; I didn't mean to leave the red sock in with the whites! How was I supposed to know that's not how you do it, you didn't bother to explain!

It's bizarre. Buffy the Vampire Slayer yelling at William the Bloody because of a red sock left in her load of whites that tainted the clothes pink. She feels like, if they're going to be fighting, shouldn't it be to the death, and about something more crucial than laundry?

Make that very bizarre.

But it's during one of these fights where she looks at him and feels a familiar bolt of white hot something flash through her. If she wasn't so distracted, she could've fought it off--she's been doing that for over a week now. But yelling at him, hearing his defensive, lame-ass excuses for not checking the load feels so normal, so unlike the two of them, that she's not even prepared for the old lust when it hits her.

And it does. Oh, God, it really does.

Her mid-rant pause is fractional before she decides to go on as if nothing has happened, but Spike has stopped looking defensive, stopped looking safe. Now he looks interested, doing that head-tilt thing that works so well for him, and as her voice fails her, his eyes widen and she can see his nostrils flare slightly and she knows that he knows. Which is sort of eww, but mostly nerve-wracking because his curiosity is fading and being replaced with an intense, almost predatory look.

He's leaning forward, like he might come around the island to her, but as he breathes in deep as she watches, and all the longing, all the need, fades from his face, and he turns away. It's fake, of course, she knows that. He still feels the longing and the need and the lust and everything she feels and maybe more. But in that moment, she trusts him, really trusts him deep inside, and can finally draw the line between the two of them. That Spike hurt her.

This one won't.

"Spike," she says softly, and hears the acceptance in his name as the word echoes for the briefest of moments. She wills him to hear it too, she wants him to have heard it, possibly more than she's ever wanted

((anyone))

anything.

And, his head jerks up, and he stares at her, and she knows that he understands. He stands still, waiting as she takes the initiative and comes around the island to stand before him.

They're spinning now in a dance with entirely new steps, or maybe it's just the room that's spinning because all she can see are his eyes, his mouth, the cutting angle of his cheekbone, and she sees that his eyes have darkened the merest shade as he's watched her come to him. She's never noticed things in such infinitesimal amounts, not once in her life, but before him the world is in such small fractions, all of them gray like the choices she's made, all of them blue like his eyes. And she understands every one.

Her hand slides up his arm, hesitantly, feeling her way, and then she strokes the back of his neck for a moment before cupping it with her palm. The tiny hairs there are soft, she notices as she

((swirls and spins and dips around and around and around))

pulls his head down, lifts her chin up and catches his mouth with hers.

It's new, like everything about him is, but the old fire is still there, the fire that he stoked in her once upon a time when she was sure she had none left. His lips feel cool against hers, and taste like the Hershey's bar Dawn split with him after lunch.

He's slow as well, weighing each of his movements, and she wonders what he's thinking, if it feels as good to him as it does to her, and about how she tastes because she didn't have any of the candy bar. But the thoughts fade, like they always have when she's in his arms, and then his hands are flat on the small of her back pressing her closer and she can feel the length of his erection pressed against her stomach and he's not cool anymore, not room temperature but Buffy temperature, and her little thoughts and insecurities get lost in the mix.

His mouth, when it warms, carries all of the secrets she's ever wanted to know, and it's easy to lose herself in it and him.

And then she murmurs, "Stop," against his mouth, and he does so instantly, stiffening with worry and she can see the fear on his face when he pulls away. The fear of

((losing her?))

hurting her again. But the last piece of her relaxes, because she knows she's just as safe with him as he is with her, and so she says, "Again."

Something around his eyes--even darker still--shifts, and she knows he's smiling though she can't see proof at his mouth. He understands what she wanted to know. He'll accept any tests she wants to give. He'll be grateful for any chance to take them. He

((loves her))

wouldn't hurt her now. No, not ever again.

And the room spins around her again as they kiss, and find a new niche that fits them both.

 

The End