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“Can we talk?”

Buffy swallowed, flexing her fingers around the stake she had raised. In truth, she should have known it was him. Just as, forever ago, she had been able to sense Angel inside the chaos that usually just screamed vampire, she’d become attuned enough to Spike to feel him apart from her average slayee.

Part of her had known he’d seek her out tonight. All of her had hoped he wouldn’t. But she’d gone and confused things—that was on her. And so was this.

“Yeah,” she said, lowering her stake. “I think we should.”

Spike blinked, clearly not having expected that. “We should?”

Buffy found herself fighting a grin, which surprised the hell out of her. One thing she’d noticed since crawling her way out of the grave was that Spike was ridiculously easy to throw off his game. He also didn’t have much of a poker face—or anything resembling a poker face when it came to her—so she always knew when she’d thrown him for a loop.

“Yes, we should. Isn’t that what you just said?”

“Well, yeah. Just didn’t expect you to agree.” Spike shifted his weight and looked away. “So…what was that? You kissed me.”

Yeah, she had. She really had. Music swelling, heart in her throat, her body pulling her toward him as though it had a will of its own—all of that and then some. She’d stared at his lips and known it was coming, felt her every nerve telegraphing her intent to kiss him like nothing else could. And it had been a while coming, especially given the fact that she spent pretty much every waking minute in his company. Those that she didn’t spend in his company were usually spent wishing that she were.

“I know,” Buffy replied at last, because, well, there was really nothing else to say. “And—”

Before she could get another word out, though, Spike’s eyes went wide and he became a blur of movement. The next thing she knew, she was on her back, her vampire on top of her, pinning her to the ground, which was really freaking presumptuous of him, considering the talk had just started.

Then she heard it—a sound she could have identified anywhere. A stake had just embedded itself in a tree.

“Easy, boys,” said a steady, smarmy voice. “No need to get physical-like. Wasn’t aiming for the lady, anyway.”

Buffy turned her head, sure her eyes were deceiving her. She blinked once. Yup. There was a shark wearing a business suit.

Because of course there was a shark wearing a business suit. Honestly, at this point in her life, why wouldn’t there be?

Spike’s weight was gone the next second—Buffy would take the time later to analyze why that bothered her—and then he’d offered her his hand. Something he’d done rather a lot over the last year. Something that had, at some point, become familiar rather than downright wiggy. Before Spike, the only vampire she’d ever touched in a nonviolent way had been Angel and that had been…natural. Understandable. Accepted.

Buffy didn’t know what it said about her that touching Spike called to both the woman and the Slayer in her, and she was fast running out of opportunities to avoid finding an answer.

“What do you want?” Spike was asking the shark man when Buffy snapped back to the present.

Another major non-shock. Spike was friendly with the local monsters. Because that was what he was—a monster. Something that had been, admittedly, on the side of hard when it came to remembering these days, but no less true because of it.

“You know me,” Shark Man replied, doing his best impression of a mob boss. “Uh… There are a lot of things I would like, Mr. Spike.” He walked around them both and made a big show about pulling the stake his cronies had launched at her out of the tree. “A house in Bel Air…” Now he was walking toward them, going full-on menace. It would work on anyone who hadn’t seen the classic SNL skit at least once. “With a generously sized swimming pool… And of course”— Shark Man threw an arm around Spike’s shoulder—“the forty Siamese that you owe me.”

“Take it easy,” Spike said, looking more irritated than concerned—no surprises there. “You’ll get your kittens.”

“Oh, I trust you, Mr. Spike,” cooed the Shark Man.

Buffy couldn’t keep from rolling her eyes this time. “Oh god, what is it with you guys? Why kittens? Why can’t you just use money like everybody else?”

Of course this involved kittens. The hottest currency she’d never known about. If only it carried the same clout with actual bill collectors that it did with shark people.

“She’s funny,” said the shark to the vampire. “I like funny in a girl.”

Great. Just what she needed. More creature-of-the-night admirers.

“I just need a little more time,” Spike replied.

“Time, time, time…is what turns kittens into cats,” hissed Shark Man. “Look, I don't wanna see anyone get hurt.” He turned away, allowing his goons to take a step forward. “Boys.”

Honestly, would demons in this town never get the hint? Buffy leaped up, seizing the branch above her head and using it to leverage her weight so she could plant both feet on the first advancing vamp in a hard kick. The lackey landed conveniently at Shark Man’s feet.

“Then you’d better close your eyes,” she said before turning to shove Spike a safe distance away. The second vampire, apparently still having not gotten the memo, kept pushing toward her, so he had really no one to blame but himself when she greeted him with a couple of well-aimed punches and likewise sent him airborne.

“I said she was the Slayer, boss,” grumbled the first vamp.

“Ahh, good for you. The Vampire Slayer.” Shark Man looked her up and down hungrily. “Have you ever given any thought to, uh, freelance work? A little debt collecting, perhaps?”

“No, thank you,” Buffy replied, her arms folded.

“Right.” Spike was back by her side, practically vibrating with energy. “You want the sodding kittens, mate, and I’ll deliver. Might throw in a spare or two—interest, and all that. But it’s not gonna be tonight, so if you could toddle off now, the lady and I were in the middle of something.”

Buffy rolled her eyes again, though she was trying like mad to keep from smirking. Life with Spike around was a lot of things, but dull wasn’t anywhere on the list.

“I collect my debts, Mr. Spike,” Shark Man warned as he and his goons began backing away. “The next collection call won’t be so amicable. You remember that.”

They kept walking backward until they were a safe distance away, reminding Buffy forcibly of the time Harmony had backed herself out of Spike’s crypt to keep his eyes from landing on her ass ever again. And before she could help herself, a laugh bubbled off her lips. A good one, because damn, she had not appreciated the comedic gold of that moment enough when it had happened, too busy being skeeved out and pissed off.

“Somethin’ funny, love?” Spike asked, jarring her back to the present. The present where they had been seconds away from actually discussing what had happened outside of the Bronze the other night. That much was enough to sober her up fast.

“Oh, just this thing that is my life.” Buffy looked again to where Shark Man and friends had disappeared, though she knew she was stalling. The only tinglies she felt now were those courtesy of the vampire to her right. After a moment, she conceded defeat, released a long sigh, then turned to face him entirely. “Look, Spike… About the other night… I shouldn’t have done that.”

Spike stared at her with that annoyingly penetrative gaze of his, not without the odd flash of irritation. “No?”

“No. I was taking advantage of how you feel about me.” That was part one of the truth. “And maybe feeling bad about…you know.”

Some of the frustration melted off his face. “What’s that?”

“Well, what you said. Err, sang. You aren’t responsible for my problems and, yeah, I might’ve been drunk out of my mind, but I do remember telling you that you’re the only person I can stand to be around right now and that is major with the head-trippy at the moment.” Buffy laughed again, though there was nothing funny this time. “I didn’t want to lose whatever it is that you give me that makes living not so hard, so I… I dunno, I went after you and gave you what you wanted. And hoo boy, with the bad idea.”

Spike was still for a moment, his head tilted, expression unreadable. Then he stepped forward, right into her personal space, and though she knew she should, she didn’t back up a step. Just let him be close.

“You sayin’ that’s all that was?” he asked in a low, seductive purr. “What I wanted? Tellin’ me you didn’t want it, too? Forget I can smell you, pet. I know when you’re hot.”

Now she did plant her hands on his chest to force him back a couple of steps. “One, gross. Two, respect the personal bubble, and three… No, that’s not all that was but it’s all it can be. For now, okay?”

“For now? Meaning—”

“Meaning I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. The world, the rules, the things I feel at any given moment… Nothing makes sense to me right now. And it’s about getting through this moment to get to the next one and…”

Buffy sighed, turning away from him now, wishing—not for the first time—that she had the ability to simplify things the way Xander did, or be blunt about them, like Anya. But then thinking about either of them—all of them—at the present was something beyond difficult. When they were together, all she wanted to do was scream and rage at them for their carelessness, their callousness, for not bothering to check and see where she was before deciding that it had to be Hell because…why? Why would her friends think she was in Hell?

Oh, sure, she knew the reasons they’d given her. Same thing had happened to Angel once upon a time. Yeah, it had, only all of Angel had disappeared when Acathla sucked him in. Maybe if she hadn’t been there all dead-like, she could follow the line of thinking that had led them to resurrecting her. Maybe. If she squinted.

“I can’t be…that for you. And I am too screwed up right now to even figure out what that means,” she heard herself saying. “I’ll stay away from you if that’s what you want—”

“But it’s not.” Suddenly, Spike was in front of her again, again in her bubble but not oppressively so. He took her shoulders into his grip and squeezed. “Spent all bloody summer wishin’ for this. For you. Having you here is more… More than I wagered I’d ever get.” He studied her before dropping his hands to his sides. “What I want is you. However I can get you.”

Buffy licked her lips. When he said things like that, looked at her the way he was looking at her now, it was hard to remember the reasons why leaping into his arms was a bad idea. “But you want more.”

“Never said I didn’t. And if you’re offering, I’ll take it.” A pause. “But you’re not. Right now.”

The right now thing was going to be one of those things that haunted her, wasn’t it? Not right now had never been in the cards where she and Spike were concerned. Not before, at least. Not even after he’d made it more complicated to remember why. She hadn’t had time to worry about what signals she was giving Spike when she’d started relying on him toward the end with Glory, and he hadn’t questioned it, either. Spike had known the score then and loved her anyway. Fought beside her anyway. And if Dawn was to be believed, continued that fight all summer. Continued living up to the promise he’d thought he’d failed at keeping.

Buffy nodded and looked down. “No. But I don’t want to…lose anything, either. You’re pretty much the only person keeping me sane at the moment, and I know that’s not fair to you and you didn’t ask for it, so—”

The next thing she knew, Spike had seized her arms and pulled her to him. For a moment she thought he was going right for the kissage again, which she probably would have let him do because it was nice to not think. Nice to focus on the way her belly tingled and her heart fluttered when his mouth was on hers. But he didn’t kiss her. Instead, he wrapped his arms around her and held her to his chest in a hug.

A hug. Spike was hugging her.

God, just when she’d thought her life couldn’t get any weirder.

“Dunno how to do this either,” he said thickly. “How to be what you need. But I wanna try, Slayer. If you’ll let me.”

Buffy closed her eyes, forced herself to relax. It didn’t feel natural—none of this did. And then it all felt too natural. The way seeking out Spike had felt natural from the start. From the moment she’d walked down those steps, captured in the way he’d looked at her. How gentle he’d been, how…everything.

“I am sorry,” she murmured into his shoulder. “For being crazy mixed-signal girl.”

A pleasant rumbling sensation rolled against her chest, and she realized the next second that he was chuckling. Good. At least all of this was funny to someone.

“I meant everythin’ I said that night. The part I did right and the part I bollixed up,” Spike said a moment later. “Told you as much. Made you a promise. Swore to you to protect her.”

“That wasn’t your fault.”

“Wasn’t it? The bloody Doc was there ’cause of me. ’Cause I…” He pulled back the next instant, his eyes overfull with something she couldn’t name. “You know the Bit wanted your mum back. Know she was workin’ some mojo to make it happen. Maybe didn’t know—”

“She told me,” Buffy said flatly. “Dawn did. A couple of days, maybe, after Willow brought me back. She was talking—just talking nonstop. Had her own issues to work through about what happened. Probably still does. But she told me then, who he was. How she knew him and who made with the introductions.”

Spike’s nostrils flared. “Brilliant. Just bloody brilliant. So you just bidin’ your time, tryin’ to catch me unawares, or are you gonna make a big production out of it?”

“Out of what?”

“Figure I got a stake comin’, yeah?”

Buffy snorted a laugh, this one somewhat bitter. The past few days, she’d lived for sunset so she could show up at Spike’s crypt, spend time with someone who didn’t look at her expectantly, didn’t mind if she just sat with her thoughts, let her ramble about her so-called afterlife, didn’t try to fix her. A bit of evil he’d committed months ago might as well have been a lifetime in the past. “Pre-Mortem Buffy, yeah, probably. Post-Mortem Buffy isn’t doing cartwheels or anything. Yeah, you did a dumb thing. Dawn did a dumb thing, too. Hell, when I thought it might work, even I was all on board, which, dumb. But I also know why you did it. Same as I know why my friends brought me back. But it didn’t happen. Dawn wised up and this is the kind of thing to expect from you, right?”

“Thanks ever so.”

“But it is, Spike. Doing something like that is stupid and all kinds of gray on the morality scale, but you don’t have a soul.” She swallowed, a futile attempt to staunch her swelling bitterness. “You don’t, but all my friends do. You didn’t do anything they weren’t willing to do. And, unlike them, nothing came of it. Like I said, no cartwheels, but also… I just don’t have it in me to care about that right now. Maybe when I start to feel things again I’ll change my mind.”

When she met his eyes, she wanted to laugh again. Seemed she’d stunned the vampire stupid. It took a second, but he came back to himself, shuffling in that self-conscious way of his, lowering his gaze to the ground.  “Even still, you know. You know it was me who put the bloody Doc on the scent in the first place. That hadn’t happened and you wouldn’t have had to jump.”

“Maybe,” Buffy said, shrugging a shoulder. “But the jump wasn’t the problem.”

“For you, maybe.”

“It wasn’t. Dying is easy. It’s everything else that’s complicated.” She paused, licked her lips. “So…are we okay? I want to be okay with you.”

The corners of his mouth twitched. A mouth she so shouldn’t be looking at, given that she was asking for space. Essentially walking back everything that had happened the other night, knowing full well it wasn’t what he wanted. Remembering the frustration in his eyes, in his body, as he’d stalked toward her in song. Then later, when he’d tried to storm off and she’d rushed out to stop him, because remaining in that room with the people who loved her, feeling the weight of their useless regret might have choked what little life she’d managed to recover right on out.

“That’s what I was gettin’ at,” Spike said. “Remember everythin’ I said that night. ’Bout bein’ there for her. And about you never loving me. Got it in my head maybe I was wrong on that score. You comin’ around, treatin’ me like a man and not…what I am. Bloke thinks things, yeah?”

Buffy swallowed. She’d thought of it often, too. Especially at night, surrounded by nothing but the sounds of others sleeping and her own tumultuous thoughts. Picturing the lid of her coffin and the weight of the dirt on top, remembering that awful sensation of waking up and not knowing where she was, then knowing exactly where she was. And how charged she’d felt when she’d seen Spike, how calm and okay it had been until her friends had exploded into the house with their bright and their loud and their imploring eyes and their wanting her so badly to be okay without stopping to question just how in the world she could be okay after what she’d been through.

There had been numerous moments like that, where being around them would make her see the inside of her coffin, while being with Spike reminded her of the stretch before it. No expectation, no dressing up, no putting on a mask and pretending. How she’d thought it might be a vampire thing—hoped it was, in fact—and had taken that hope along with her confused Spike-shaped feelings with her to meet Angel.

And how Angel had brought the loud with him. How he hadn’t known how to talk to her, what to say or not say. How he’d marveled the way Spike had but also not the way Spike had, because there was so much weight in the way he looked at her. How she’d wanted to tell him about Heaven the way she’d told Spike, but then remembered that she’d sent Angel to Hell and there was no way he could understand. How it had struck her then, in ways it never had before her death, just how far apart they were, and how that sense of disconnect with him had depressed her almost more than anything else.

It meant the girl who had loved him, waited and hoped that he would return to her life just as easily as he’d walked out of it, had stayed six feet under.

It also meant that the quiet wasn’t a vampire thing at all.

It was a Spike thing.

Telling Spike she wasn’t sure that she couldn’t love him now was probably a bad idea, because he’d chase it like a bloodhound. The way he would have chased her like a bloodhound about kissing him if she hadn’t, well, faced the music.

But maybe she didn’t need to tell him that.

 “So we’re good?” she asked instead. “You didn’t…really tell me.”

Again, Spike’s lips twitched. “We’re good.”

“And spending time with you these last—”

He held up a hand. “Bugger what I sang. If it helps you… Anything, love.”

And then she did want to kiss him. She wanted to kiss him, and she wanted to cry. She wanted to throw herself in his arms and get more of that hug, just feel him, strong and holding her up, not asking for anything. Wanting, yes, but not asking. How long he would have let her go along with it had Sweet not forced the truth out of him was beyond her. Maybe forever. It had been, after all, the first time he’d told her how he felt since she returned.

Not that she’d needed to be told. The way he looked at her was enough.

At least for the moment, though, the chasm that his forced honesty had caused seemed crossable if not mended. She’d built a little bridge tonight. It was shaky, missing planks, and almost sure to bow under pressure, but maybe she could build onto it over the coming days. Make it what it had been.

And when it was finished, who knew what would be on the other side?