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heaven, make me an offer

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It's warm where she is. She wakes up and stretches big in her cool clean bed again and again, and it's patter-patter raining on the window when she flips to the best page of the best book and her mother's voice is the sound of a big fuzzy blanket saying, I love you, and everything is safe and everyone is over.

His poetry tastes like blueberries.

It's beautiful where she is. The world is good and it was proud of her and it'll be alright, it promises. It'll be alright. Thank you, it says with fresh-cut grass. Thank you for loving me.  

It was easy. There were funnel cakes and strawberries and little sisters and sharp teeth. There were cockroaches and trees that fell in the road and really soft tissues when you needed to blow your nose. It was easy, you're welcome, it was—

 

~*~

 

"Oh my G-God, dig faster!"

Buffy claws at the hard-packed dirt.

"Fuck. Fuck, Anya, can't you—"

Her knuckles scrape against the shattered wood.

"My hands hurt, Xander, I'm trying."

Maybe she's a vampire; her lungs are burning.

"Fuck fuck fuck, Wil. Willow, wake up!"

She was wrong.

"Oh my God, Buffy. Can you hear us?"

It wasn't easy.

"Shit. Shit, don't pull her like that! You're gonna—"

The dirt pours into her mouth.

"—dislocate her shoulder. Buffy, hang on!"

She tries to cough and the earth swallows around her.

"Xander, she c-cant breathe."

Fingernails scraping across her face—

"There. Fuck, get her head clear."

—taking the dirt away.

"We've got her. Buffy, we've got you."

She vomits damp soil onto the grass. Her throat hurts. 

"Xander, there's something wrong with her."

"There's nothing wrong with her. Give her a fucking second, okay?"

Her eyes open again. The air is hot and dry and dark and it tastes like dust. Her teeth are flat little bones. Willow rises up from the ground like the monster in a Frankenstein movie and asks, swaying like the smears of blood on her face, "Did it work?"

"I think she's broken," says Anya.

"Oh my—" Willow sways forward; Tara catches her. "Buffy! I—I did it!"

Xander says, "Buffy, can you hear us?"

"Is this hell?" she asks.

"What?" Willow is frowning. "Buffy, no. No, you're—you're home now. You're safe—I saved you."

She looks down at her clothes. She's wearing a black dress. There's a copper bracelet on her wrist.

"Where…" Her chest hurts. "Where's…"

"O-oh!" Tara stammers. "Sp-Spike and Dawn? They're at the… they're at your house. They…"

"We didn't tell them," Anya says. "This resurrection was conducted on a strictly need-to-know basis."

She touches the murky crystal.

"Do you… wanna see them?" Tara asks. "We can take you there."

She gets to her feet.

"Woah, there," says Xander. He touches her elbow. "Steady as she goes. Gotta get your sea legs back."

"Don't confuse her with mixed metaphors," Anya says.

"Sweetie, can you walk?" Tara asks.

Willow says, "I'm fine. I—I feel good."

"Well, you look almost as terrible as Buffy," says Anya.

"Give it a rest, Ahn."

"Someone needs to be practical about this. Giles isn't here to do it."

"Giles," she repeats.

They step onto the sidewalk.

"Oh," says Tara. "Um… he—he left town after—b-but I'm sure he'll come back."

It's bright here. The people are loud. She covers her eyes.

"What's wrong, Buff?" Xander asks.

She keeps moving.

"Um, the house will look a little different," Tara says. "We—we've kind of… you've been gone a little while. Just so you can prepare yourself."

Her mouth tastes like screeching styrofoam.

"Willow and I moved in to help take care of things," Tara continues. "So we kind of, um… but most things are the same. It's—it's still your house."

"We repainted the trim," says Xander.

Willow says, "Dawnie picked the color. Oh, she's gonna be so happy!"

"And Spike," adds Anya. "Which is a relief. We spent—"

"Hey, the Espresso Pump!" Xander says. "I bet a good ole fashioned red eye mocha'll knock that jet lag from hell right outta ya."

She turns her head away from the glowing building.

"O-kay," says Xander. "Maybe some other time."

The trim is purple. She can't remember what color it was before.

They open the door. She waits, watching the others go through. Won't someone invite her in?

"Willow? Tara?" Footsteps pound down the hall. "Thought you'd be gone all—"

Spike stands halfway up the stairs. His shirt is dark green. He's staring outside.

"What is this?" he asks.

"It's really her," says Willow. "It's—"

"I fucking see her." Spike walks down into the foyer. He looks sad. "How…?"

She lifts her hand, reaching. He takes it from across the threshold, leading.

She walks inside.

"You did this?" Spike asks.

"Yeah, I did," says Willow. "I… we didn't want you to… if it didn't work."

She asks, "Where's Dawn?"

"Uh… upstairs," Spike says. He's looking down at her hands. "I… I'll—" He turns and raises his voice. "Dawn! Come down here!"

She flinches.

Spike goes quiet again. "Sorry. I'm sorry, love. Here, look at me, alright? I'm sorry."

His hand is quiet too. It touches her cheek.

"Oh my God. Oh my God, oh my God, is that—" Dawn runs down the stairs. "It can't be. Buffy? Buffy, are you here?"

She looks at her.

"Buffy," Dawn cries. Her hug is like a snake. "Buffy, you're home."

She stares at the big leather coat on the banister.

"Is she…" Dawn sniffles. "Is she okay?"

"Give her a mo', nibblet," Spike says gently. "Hey, you know what'd help? Let's get us the First Aid kit, yeah? Gotta take care of these hands."

He leads her into the living room. She sits on the couch and watches him kneel at her feet. The others crowd around them.

"How long was I gone?" she asks.

"Uh." He makes a sound like there's dirt in his throat, too. "Hundred and forty-seven days, yesterday. Hundred and forty-eight today—" He smiles. "'Cept today doesn't count, does it?"

She looks at their hands. His bracelet is on the right wrist.

"How long was it… for you?" Spike asks. "Where you were?"

There's a wedding ring on his left hand. 

"Longer," she says.

It's smudged and grey like a storm cloud. She touches it.

"Oh," he says. "I…"

She looks up at him. "Who is she?"

Spike's eyebrows furrow; she almost remembers—something. About how he'd look at her.  

He looks at her however that was and says, "You."

(It was good, she thinks.)

She looks at their hands.

"Um, we were afraid they'd take Dawn away," Willow says. "So we… um, we asked Riley for some help and he—he got us a marriage certificate and stuff, so Spike could be Dawn's guardian."

"Everyone thinks you're with Dad," Dawn says. She's holding a plastic box. "We said, um, he was sick."

She lifts her head. "No one knows I'm dead?"

"Well, no," says Willow. "But you're… not anymore, so… yay?"

She tells Spike, "I'm tired."

His eyebrows droop even more.

"Of course, love," he says. "Here, let's… we'll take care of you, alright? We can sort the rest out tomorrow. Let's just go to bed."

She looks at their hands.

"Uh, yeah," Xander says. "We'll come back tomorrow, okay? It's no big."

"But Buffy, be happy!" Willow tells her. "We really did it—we got you out!"

She touches the ring.

"We'll be in our room if—if you need anything," says Tara.

Xander and Anya leave. Willow and Tara go upstairs. Dawn helps clean the blood on Buffy's hands.

"Can I stay?" Dawn asks.

"Let me get her washed up," Spike says. "I'll make sure you get to say goodnight, bit."

"But I can help," Dawn says.

"I know. You've helped plenty—right, Buff?"

She says, "... Yeah."

"But big sis is tired, yeah? Don't wanna crowd her."

Dawn says, "Whatever," and goes up the stairs.

Spike helps her to her feet again. She follows him into the bathroom and watches the shower turn on.

He takes off her dress and puts her shoes in the corner. He takes off his dark green shirt. They climb over the edge of the tub.

The water is warm. She breathes in.

"Too hot?" he asks. "You know I never get the damn temperature right. Here—"

She stops him.

"Alright then." His smile feels slippery in her mouth. "Here, love, let me get your hair. Might hurt a little, alright? It looks bollixed."

She tips her head back. He's gentle. The water stings.

"Close your eyes, love. There's my girl. Does it feel alright? Don't want to hurt you. Hell, there's a pound of dirt in here."

She tries to cough the rest up.

"Alright? Alright, love? Shh, here, breathe. We'll get you some tea next. Dawnie'll like that. She's a pro at it now—knows how to brew it just from the color. Yeah, that's it, Buffy, breathe."

She spits out a mouthful of water. 

He massages shampoo into her scalp; it smells like coconut. She remembers that. He'd press his nose into her hair and breathe her in, and it was good. 

She turns to him and asks, "Am I real?"

Spike makes a sound like a popped balloon. He covers his mouth and makes it again, and then he's kneeling at her feet and wailing with his arms wrapped around her middle and his entire body shaking so hard.

"I'm sorry," he sobs. "I'm sorry, love, my love, I couldn't, I'm sorry. Buffy, I couldn't do it. I know what I promised you and I tried, swear I did, but you were gone. I took care of her. I tried. I tried."

Her hand is in his hair. It's ugly. Her spine is one of those bugs with too many legs. If she opens her mouth it'll crawl right out.

"You were gone," Spike tells her, still weeping. "And there wasn't anything. I tried. No light without you. Nothing. I love you. Buffy, I tried. I tried, I tried, I—"

And she knows, then. She decides. He can't know where she was—none of them can.

Buffy closes her eyes until the water goes cold.

 

~*~

 

"You didn't change anything," Buffy says.

Spike pauses in the bedroom doorway. "What's that?"

"Tara said the house would be different," she says. She puts the tea that Dawn made down on her desk.

"Oh. Uh." Spike shuts the door. "Some of the other rooms, yeah. Downstairs, and—Mum's. But I didn't…"

She trails her fingers along the desk, wincing when an old college syllabus gives her a paper cut.

"Couldn't bear it," he admits quietly. "Too much like…"

"Killing me?" she asks.

Spike doesn't say anything.

Buffy looks up at her corkboard. There's all these pictures pinned up of her and her friends. They look happy.

Their faces rot away into corpses.

She flinches, turning to look at Spike in shock, but he's digging through her dresser. 

When she turns back to the wall, the pictures are all normal again.

"Did you—" He pauses. "Did you want something different to sleep in?"

She touches the cuts on her knuckles. "Um, yeah."

"Yummy sushi?" he asks.

She blinks at him.

"You remember?" Spike asks, holding up a pair of pajamas. "They were your favorite."

"... Right," she says. "Thanks."

Spike leaves the pajamas on the bed. He unbuckles his belt and hops out of his jeans. 

Buffy watches.

He smiles a little when their eyes meet; she looks away.

"Uh," he says. "Are you… ready for bed, love? Or—you didn't finish your tea."

"Sorry," she says.

"It's alright," he tells her. "Just… whatever you want."

Buffy takes off the shirt he put her in after the shower. She takes off her pants, too, and leaves them piled on the ground. The pajamas are soft. Her skin itches.

"I'll get the light," Spike says.

It goes dark.

Buffy stares at the bed. "Which… side was mine?"

"Uh, you—" Spike's voice crackles. "You liked the right."

Buffy tries to smile a little. "Right."

"I'm sorry," Spike says. "About before. I didn't want you to see me like…"

Buffy crawls into bed.

Spike climbs in behind her. The mattress creaks, and she remembers. They used to giggle and hold their hands over each other's mouths and try to make love without the bed springs squeaking, and Mom used to make faces at them the next morning.

She rolls onto her side facing the wall. He wraps his arms around her, pressing his chest to her back, and tucks his face into the crook of her neck.

Buffy closes her eyes. The covers are pulled over them both and there's a bead of sweat rolling down her ribs. His bare feet are cold against her ankles. 

She wriggles out of his arms, rolling onto her belly with one arm dangling off the bed.

Spike shifts onto his back.

Buffy rolls the other way and tries to rest her head on his chest. His arm wraps around her back and his lips brush against the top of her head.

She squirms onto her stomach again.

"Maybe I better take the couch," Spike says quietly. "Give you… let you adjust."

"... Okay," she says.

He gets out of bed and steps back into his jeans, and leaves the door open a crack when he goes.

Buffy stares up at the ceiling for a long time. Her chest aches. Her knuckles throb. They used to lay tangled in this bed until the sun came up.

She digs her toes into the carpet and creeps down the stairs.

All the lights are off and the curtains are drawn tight. Spike is laying on his back on the couch, one hand resting on his stomach and the other slipping off the edge of a cushion.

Buffy sits down on the floor by his hip and takes his hand.

"Buff?" he murmurs, shifting a little. "Need something?"

Buffy rests her cheek against the back of his palm, the milky crystal pressing against her head, and closes her eyes.

 

~*~

 

They startle awake at the same time.

It's still dark out; Buffy clutches Spike's hand and scrambles up onto the couch with him.

"What was that?" she asks.

"Sounded like the witches," Spike says, sitting up the rest of the way. "Stay here, I'll—"

Footsteps hurry down the stairs.

"Oh, thank God," Tara says. "Are—are you guys okay?"

"What happened?" Spike asks.

Willow switches the light on—Buffy winces and hides her eyes.

"Have you guys been down here the whole time?" Willow asks.

"Yeah," Spike says slowly. "All night. What's wrong?"

Tara's face is pinched up. "We—there was… something that looked like Buffy. It said—"

She cuts off with a gasp—the wall is writhing somehow, like something is crawling underneath it. It's coming towards them.

Buffy grabs Spike by the shirt and pulls him up and away from the window; he curses when his shin smacks into the coffee table.

"It wasn't Buffy," he says tersely. "There's something in the house. Something you did?"

Whatever the thing is squeezes between the windowpanes and disappears.

Willow gives him a look, then says, "I'm calling Xander."

She grabs the cordless phone off the charging station and dials.

Spike says, "Gonna check on Dawn. Stay here, love."

He leaves.

Tara is pacing the middle of the room. 

"Xander?" Willow says. "It's me—Willow. We were just attacked. … No, it was Buffy—or something that looked like her."

Buffy sits down on the couch.

"Because then she just disappeared, a-and Spike said he was with her all night, and we—we saw a little—" Willow glances at the walls. "There's something in the house."

Spike comes back downstairs. He nods at Buffy and sits next to her, resting a hand on her back.

"I'm not sure we should—" Willow cuts off. "What was that? Xander? Xander!"

Spike sits up straight. "What's going on?"

"I—I don't know," Willow says. "It sounds like he dropped the phone. Xander? Hello?"

Buffy gets off the couch. She walks over to the weapons chest and clicks it open.

"Are you okay? What happened?" Willow asks. "Oh my gosh, that's— … No, that's not how—I don't think it possessed Buffy. I—I mean, it didn't… maybe you should come here. Is she awake?"

It's organized exactly how she liked it, even though Spike used to complain about it. Hasn't he been using them?

"Okay, you guys come here when she wakes up," Willow says. "We should all be together. … We'll figure it out."

Spike rests his hand over hers, gently shutting the trunk again. "Don't think it's that kind of beastie, love."

"Yeah, see you soon," Willow says. "Bye."

Buffy stands up again, looking around the room. Her favorite armchair is gone.

"Buffy?" Spike asks, touching lightly at her shoulder. "Hey, you alright?"

Willow says, "Whatever this thing is, it sounds like it possessed Anya. I don't know exactly what happened, but he said she collapsed afterwards. He's gonna bring her here once she wakes up."

"Alright," says Spike.

Buffy wanders into the dining room. There's a computer set up at one end and new curtains on the window.

"Hey, ducks," Spike says. "Why don't you head back to bed, yeah? Get a little more sleep. We'll wake you if anything happens."

She looks at him—the way he's watching her. He looks so sad again. 

"Okay," she says. She smiles a little and the furrow between his eyebrows deepens.

As she heads up the stairs, she hears Willow ask, "Why were you guys down here, anyway?"

"She couldn't sleep," Spike answers. "Guess we passed out on the couch. Maybe another side effect of your little spell."

"What's that supposed to mean?" asks Willow.

Buffy uses the bathroom and then climbs into bed. She leaves the door open, just in case, and curls up on her side with her eyes squeezed shut. It's big and empty and cold.

She wraps her fingers around her bracelet.

Her pillow is getting damp.

Voices drift up from downstairs—angry ones. Spike says something sharp and hoarse that sounds like sandpaper.

"Buffy?" Dawn asks from the doorway. "What's going on?"

Buffy sits up, scrubbing at her face. "I don't know. The guys are taking care of it."

"Spike and Willow are fighting," Dawn says.

"I guess," says Buffy. She curls her fingers in her blanket. "Just go back to sleep."

Dawn is hugging both arms around her middle. "Can I sleep in here?"

Buffy says, "I haven't been sleeping well. I'd probably just keep you up."

"Oh." Dawn shifts her weight. "Okay."

Buffy looks down.

"... Goodnight, I guess?" says Dawn.

Buffy rolls back onto her side.

 

~*~

 

In the morning, Buffy finds everyone besides Dawn sitting around the kitchen island. They're holding coffee cups and dressed for the day already; Buffy doesn't know what time it is.

"Can we do that?" Xander is asking. "Kill it?"

"History suggests," Buffy says.

They all jump.

"Buffy!" Willow says. "You're not supposed to be up."

Tara asks, "How—how are you feeling? Are you okay?"

Buffy blinks at her.

"Coffee, love?" Spike asks, sliding off his stool. "Think these vultures left enough for a cup."

"Words hurt, Spike," says Xander.

Buffy asks, "So what're we dealing with?"

"A demon you brought back from hell with you," says Anya.

Buffy looks away. Spike slips a mug into her hand. It's warm.

"It's not that bad," Willow says quickly. "I—I mean, it's just a little haunting-type stuff."

"Easy for you to say," Anya tells her. "It didn't crawl inside you. It was very disturbing."

Buffy swirls the coffee around in her mug. Maybe she should…

"But also, not so bad, really, in the—in the grand scheme!" Willow adds. "Because, you know, totally worth it."

"Yeah," Xander says. "This haunting thing—we'll fix it, and then we'll still have you back, which is… it's so important."

"Yes, it's wonderful," Tara says.

Buffy's coffee is bitter. She takes another sip.

Spike goes to the refrigerator and starts looking around inside.

"We should get to work," Buffy says.

Xander says, "Got it, boss. I've just gotta drop Dawn off at school."

"I'll call her out sick." Spike pours coffee creamer into Buffy's mug and stirs it around, his hand brushing hers. "She'll wanna be here."

Buffy's coffee is sweet. She puts it on the counter.

"Let's Box it up, then," says Xander.

"I'll meet you there," Spike says. "Gonna catch a kip first."

Tara says, "Um, okay. Buffy, do you wanna stay here, too? You guys and Dawn could meet us later."

"Okay," Buffy says.

The group files out into the sun. Buffy watches them all go, watches the door swing shut and block out the light again. There are birds singing.

"Are you hungry, love?" Spike asks. "I could make you something before I head up."

"I'm okay," she says.

Spike says, "Toast it is," and heads for the kitchen.

Buffy says, "No."

He stops short, blinking at her with his fingers hooked over the door frame.

"I—I'm sorry," Buffy says. "I…"

"No, it's—" Spike sighs, running a hand through his hair. It's curly. "You shouldn't…"

"You're tired," she realizes.

He looks at her.

"I'm okay," she says.

Spike presses his lips together. "You don't have to be."

Buffy walks into the living room and turns on the TV. She turns the volume down low and stares at the weather report.

"... You know where to find me," says Spike.

She does. The stairs creak, then the ceiling. 

It's gonna be sunny all week.

 

~*~

 

"I miss Giles," Buffy says.

"Oh," says Willow, looking up from her book. "He's coming back—I talked to him. I know I'm kinda a poor substitute, but… until then, we'll get it done."

Buffy looks around. They're all staring at her now. The back of her neck prickles.

"I think I should patrol," she says, standing up.

Willow frowns. "Well, I know we'll find something soon."

"Yeah," Buffy says. 

Spike stands up too. "You want me to come with you? I could call out of work."

Buffy blinks at him. "Work?"

"Uh, yeah," Spike says. "I teach at the Y now. Mixed martial arts, self-defense classes—that kind of thing."

"Not Judo?" asks Buffy.

He smiles a little. "I deal with the principal a lot these days."

"Hey," Dawn grumbles. "Not that much."

"Helps, you know, to be seen around." Spike jerks his thumb over his shoulder. "But like I said, if you want company—"

"No," Buffy says. "I—I need to go. Sorry. You should…"

Spike says, "Alright."

Buffy grabs her coat and heads up the stairs.

"You should go," Dawn calls after her. "I'll be safe here with the others. Don't worry about me."

The little bell chimes when Buffy leaves.

 

~*~

 

Restfield is still pretty. It's a warm night, with all the little graveyard bugs chirping in the grass and an owl hooting somewhere overhead, and Buffy weaves the headstones like she was here yesterday.

It's not so loud when she's out here. She glances up at the sky, which is dark except for half a moon and a little handful of stars that don't mind the lights from town so much. Brave little stars. Buffy wants to pull her coat over her head and let it swallow her.

They think she was in hell. They think…

The world is shaking. Or her hands are, or maybe both, and she knows that the world spins around all the time but you never feel it because it's spinning you, too. She wasn't spinning where she was, even though the world was holding her, or she was holding it. 

They think it wasn't beautiful. They think it was hard and too much and that it hurt, but she didn't have fingernails that could break right off where she was. She didn't have teeth or knuckles to put in her mouth. 

She gnaws on them a little now, until a scab rips open. Her blood tastes sharp. 

Why would they think that? Why would he hold her and sob with relief and put creamer in her coffee if he didn't think it too?

She thought she felt him there. He must not have felt her.

There's not a single vampire out here tonight. No demons. Her knuckles hurt on the hand she didn't bite. 

 

~*~

 

Buffy wanders the city until the sky starts to lighten. Spike could always smell the sunrise before it came; he'd kiss her behind her house near the big tree until the smoke started rising between their mouths and he tasted like charcoal, and it made sense that someone could love her that much. He made her believe it.

She touches her left wrist.

He's watching TV with the volume too high when she walks in, dumping her coat on the floor.

"Hey," Spike says, glancing over. "Any trouble?"

"No," she says. "Have you been patrolling?"

"We all have," Spike tells her. He turns down the volume a little. "Red's quite the little taskmaster these days. You should see her in action."

Buffy asks, "What do the demons think?"

He furrows his eyebrows.

"You said no one knows I'm dead," she says.

"Oh, uh, right." Spike gets off the couch. "The same as the humans, really. Rumors spread and all. The first couple months were a rough go of it—lotta opportunistic types trying to move in, but we kept it under control. Think it's mostly evened-out now."

"Okay," says Buffy. She wanders into the kitchen.

Spike says, "Uh, I was really only half-listening when Giles explained it, but—"

She snorts quietly.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. The more things change." Spike hops up onto the island, watching her open the cabinets one by one. "But the way he explained it, seems like the Big Bad tends to gravitate to where a Slayer is. Without one, it spreads out a little. There's Hellmouths over the world."

Buffy says, "Faith."

"What's that?" Spike asks.

"She's in LA," Buffy says. "Isn't she? In jail."

"Right," says Spike. "Explains why Angel's always having a time of it, doesn't it?"

Buffy freezes with a packet of PopTarts pinched between two fingers. "Does he know I'm dead?"

"Uh, he…" Spike hesitates. "He came, once. A little after we—" He clears his throat. "Last I heard, he was in Thailand."

"He took a vacation?" Buffy asks.

"Not sure that's the word for it," says Spike. 

Buffy rips the package open. The PopTarts drop to the floor and crumble.

"Uh, like the others said, Giles left for England a few days ago," Spike says. "Wasn't much keeping him here without you. He left Anya the shop. And, uh, Riley stayed for a while, but once the nasties stopped flowing in, he and his mates went to Cleveland."

"Cleveland," says Buffy.

"Hellmouth," Spike explains. He cleans the mess off the floor. "Had a bloody spectacular earthquake about six weeks ago. I expect they're cleaning up whatever caused it. He left a number, if you wanted to call."

Buffy watches him dump the food in the trash. "Maybe later."

"The rest of us stayed," says Spike. "Right where you left us."

"How was work?" Buffy asks.

Spike opens another packet of PopTarts. "Uh, alright. I've got my beginners on Thursdays. Takes 'em a little while to adjust."

"How do you teach them?" Buffy asks. "With the chip?"

"Easy," says Spike. He drops the pastries in the toaster. "I don't think about hurting them."

Buffy jumps when the phone rings.

"Hello?" Spike answers. He listens to someone on the other end, then scowls. "What do you mean, you sent it here? What're you—"

Something throws Buffy against the wall.

"Shit. Buffy!" Spike still has the phone to his ear. "Well get off the line and bloody fix it! It can already touch her."

It goes right through Buffy's hand when she tries to grab it. It's some misty, kind of person-shaped thing with a dark mouth and hard little eyes.

"Did they tell you you belonged here?" the demon hisses. "Did they say this was your home again?"

Buffy swings wildly, but the demon vanishes. She wheels around, backing up towards Spike, who puts his back to her, too.

"Sod off!" he snarls. "Of course she does."

The demon reappears in front of them and backhands Buffy across the face. She staggers into the counter, which jams into her hip.

"Such pretty lies," the demon coos. "Do you believe them too?"

Spike lunges between them and smacks into the cabinets when the demon vanishes again. "Gah. Buffy, the chest!"

"Do you love her ghost?" the demon asks.

Buffy runs for the living room, but suddenly there's a crushing weight against her ribs—the demon's arms wrapped around her. She wheezes for air, feels—

"You're the one who's barely here," the demon tells her. "Set on this earth like a bubble."

—like she'll pop. Like the dirt is still in her mouth. And if she went—

"You won't even disturb the air when you go."

—would it be good again? Would she get to go back?

"Buffy!" Spike grabs her hard by both arms and wrenches her free. "Don't listen to it. You're here. You're here with me."

"You can't touch her, blood-drinker," the demon hisses, even as Spike drags Buffy towards the stairs. "No more than she can touch me."

Buffy stumbles forward in Spike's grip. They fumble with the latch on the weapons chest and shove it open.

The front door swings open; Buffy's head snaps over as Spike slips an axe into her hand.

Xander, Anya, and Dawn stare at the demon in horror.

"Go!" Buffy shouts at them, swinging wildly at the demon. The axe drags a little, like going through jello, but the demon disappears again. "Get Dawn out of here!"

Spike shouts from behind her and crashes into the coffee table, which splinters into big wooden shards.

Buffy's chest tightens. She wheels around to face the demon, which suddenly looks—

Buffy swings the axe again and feels the blade cut bone like butter.

—solid.

The demon's head bounces twice on the ground and rolls to a stop at Spike's feet. The body thuds to the floor.

Dawn says, "I'm guessing that's the kind of thing I'm not supposed to see."

Buffy is breathing hard, her throat sore. She rolls the body out of the way and offers Spike a hand to his feet.

"Well!" Xander says, clapping his hands together. "That's that! Happy to help, guys."

Spike pulls a thick splinter out of his palm with a wince. "Your services are bloody invaluable."

"Are you okay?" Dawn asks.

"Just a scratch, platelet." Spike ruffles her hair with the hand that isn't bleeding. "Wanna help burn the body?"

Buffy glares at him.

"What?" he says innocently. "Family business."

"Someone should call Willow and Tara," Xander points out. He pauses. "I'll call Willow and Tara."

Anya follows him into the kitchen.

Buffy heaves the headless corpse over her shoulder. She kicks the head like a soccer ball; Spike catches it in both hands.

"'S it light out?" he asks, peering around the curtains.

"Um, a little," says Dawn.

"Great. Nibblet, catch."

Dawn squeals and drops the severed head when Spike chucks it at her.

"Uh, rest in peace to someone's PopTarts!" Xander shouts from the kitchen.

Buffy sighs and hauls the body out the back door. She dumps it on the deck and goes back for the axe, which Spike tosses to her across the room. 

"Hey, yeah, the spell worked," Xander is saying. "Good job, you guys."

Anya says, "Do you think that Willow could make the demon incorporeal again? It would be much more convenient for disposal purposes."

Buffy hacks off a demon arm.

"But on the other hand—free firewood," says Xander.

"You still hungry, pet?" Spike asks from inside.

"I'm tired," says Buffy, and chops the other arm.

"Right," says Spike.

 

~*~

 

They burn the body—and the head—in the fire pit, watching the thick white smoke stream into the early morning air. Anya collects the bones for some reason Buffy doesn't want to know about. She stares at the hot ash piled high in the pit and thinks about plunging her hand into it like damp sand.

Buffy peels out of her clothes and curls up in bed alone.

 

~*~

 

Buffy wakes up on the floor of the living room, curled up against the side of the couch with her cheek propped up on the back of Spike's palm. The sun is high enough to make it through the curtains a little, and she thinks about what the demon said. 

About how it felt to almost die again. 

Buffy gets up, her fingertips tickling against the couch, and watches Spike sleep. His face is slack and soft like he's in a coffin. She lifts his right arm and crosses it over the left. His hand covers the ring.

Wrapped in her blanket cloak, Buffy goes back upstairs. Willow and Tara are talking quietly in her mother's room, but she can't understand the words.

There's a pile of her dirty clothes on the floor. A white sweater with a little crescent bloodstain at the top. 

Buffy pulls fresh things from the closet and gets dressed slowly. She wonders who put her in the funeral dress—pictures Spike doing it with weeping hands, or Willow with her stubborn courage. How did they carry the body home?

She hopes he didn't have to touch her.

The wind chimes go tink-tink from the back porch as Buffy works.

Peanut butter and grape jelly and bread that looks a little stale. The apple with the smallest bruise. Purple Gatorade from the fridge and voices drifting down the hall.

The ash is gonna blow around out there like snow.

"Want a ride, bit?" Spike asks in the foyer.

"That's okay," Dawn answers. "It looks pretty nice today."

"Gonna walk where you're supposed to?"

"Don't be lame. Bye."

Buffy folds over the top of the paper bag and hurries out the front door.

"Dawn!" she calls, letting the door swing shut behind her.

Dawn whips around. "What's wrong?"

Buffy holds up the bag. "Lunch."

"You made me lunch?" Dawn asks excitedly, walking over to take it with a big smile on her face. "Wow—thanks!"

Buffy shifts her weight a little and says, "You better go. You've been out since… I got back. And you know what they say—those who fail history? Doomed to repeat it in summer school."

She puts a smile on her face.

Dawn pulls her into a hug, squeezing her tightly and whispering, "Thank you."

Buffy lifts her hands to hug back as Dawn pulls away.

"Are… you okay?" Dawn asks.

"I'm going to start charging money for every person that asks me that," says Buffy.

Dawn smiles tentatively. "Everyone's been doing that, huh?"

Buffy says, "A little bit."

"It's because they care about you a lot," Dawn tells her. "When you were gone—" She looks down. "It was bad when you were gone. Especially… especially for Spike."

Buffy doesn't say anything.

"I—I mean, he tried really hard," Dawn says. "And he didn't say anything, but… I could tell he was sad all the time. We've all been sad all the time, since you've been…" She bites her lip. "I mean, while you were. I don't think he really… wanted to be here, without you."

"Dawn," Buffy says. "You know Spike loves you."

"I know," she says quietly. "That's… not what I meant."

A robin tugs a worm right out of the grass behind Dawn's left hip.

"But it'll be better now," Dawn says, brightening again. "Now that they can see you happy. That's all they want."

That's all, huh?

Buffy watches her sister head off, cute little backpack bouncing a little while she walks and brown bag lunch swinging in one hand. She watches the clouds drift across the sky overhead, fluffy and bright, and suddenly it hurts. It hurts behind her eyes and under her sternum and right next to her ankles, where the little straps of her shoes wrap around her feet, and wasn't all of this easy before? 

God, she remembered it easier than this.



~*~

 

She practices the speech three times in the shower. Like she should've last time.

 

~*~

 

"Hey, guys," Xander greets when Buffy and Spike walk into the Magic Box from the basement. "Dawn get off to school alright? 'Cause I was thinking, if you need help picking her up, I can do that. My crew's off until Tuesday."

Spike says, "Thanks, mate," and goes to sit with Tara at the research table. He kicks his feet up next to a stack of books and steals a handful of potato chips from the bag she was eating.

She smiles lopsidedly and nudges the bag closer.

Buffy lingers near the door, drifting forward a little and taking in the room. The sign is still flipped to Closed on the front entrance.

"Um, Buffy?" Willow asks. "Are you okay?"

"Um, I…" Buffy takes a breath. "There's… this thing, so—I'm just gonna say it."

They all look at her.

"You brought me back," Buffy tells them. "I was in… I was in hell. I… can't think too much about what it was like, but it felt like the world abandoned me there. And then you guys… did what you did."

"It was Willow," Tara tells her. "She knew what to do."

Willow smiles sheepishly.

"Okay," says Buffy. "So you did that. And the world—came rushing back. Thank you." She looks at Spike and smiles. "You guys gave me the world. I—I can't tell you what that means to me. And I should have said it before."

Tearfully, Willow pulls Buffy into a hug and says, "You're welcome."

"Welcome home, Buffy," Xander tells her, and wraps his arms around them both.

Spike's gaze is flat and steady as he holds hers. The smile falters on her face.

When the others pull away, Anya starts to chatter about opening the shop. She walks over to the table and shoves Spike's feet off it, dusting briskly where his boots dropped bits of mud and dirt.

"No lounging when the customers are around," she scolds. "It makes them less likely to give me their money."

"Yeah, yeah," Spike grumbles. "Was gonna move. You haven't even flipped the bloody sign, woman."

Anya tuts, "I can't flip the sign until you aren't lounging!"

"Why would I stop lounging before the sign is flipped?"

"This argument doesn't get funnier the more you have it," says Xander.

Spike does a backwards peace sign.

Buffy adds a little swing to her step as she heads across the room and deposits herself in his lap, wrapping both her arms around his neck. Her spine feels too tight. She kisses him hard on the mouth with her tongue slipping against the seam of his lips.

Spike shifts away.

Buffy blinks at him, her stomach turning over.

"Hey!" Anya says. "No canoodling around the customers, either. Have poorly timed sex in the basement like the rest of us."

Xander laughs nervously. "Not that we've ever, ever done that."

"Aww, let them be all cuddly," Willow argues, making her pouty face. "They're just makin' up for lost time."

One hundred and forty-nine days of it, now. Buffy cups the side of Spike's face and nudges their noses together and whispers, "What's wrong?"

Spike stares at her as hard as she kissed him. A muscle jumps in his jaw, sucking back his cheeks. 

"Nothing," he says eventually, and slides a gentle hand into her hair. "Just…"

A pain throbs at the base of Buffy's skull. She hops to her feet and asks, "Anyone else want donuts? God, I want a donut."

"I'll go with you," Tara offers, pushing out of her seat. "I can never decide what I want."

"Great!" says Buffy. She turns to Spike and smiles. "Honey, do you want anything?"

Spike says, "No."

Buffy turns smoothly away. "Wil? Xander?"

"Ooh, chocolate with sprinkles!" Willow says. "And an eclair."

"I'm gonna have to—Spike, shut up—go with creme filled," Xander says. He makes that face that means Spike is licking his teeth at him. "Anya probably wants plain glazed."

"Got it," says Buffy.

She and Tara head down the block for the donut place. Which, Buffy at least hopes, is still there. How many of these shops are new? Did the people get eaten or just move away? 

Why didn't Spike kiss her back?

She does a breath test: totally normal mouth smell. Maybe she's too deodorant-y. He used to like her kind of sweaty. And her hair looked kind of weird before she left this morning, and it's not like she's been kissing anybody where she was so maybe she forgot how to do it and it was gross.

Maybe he doesn't love her anymore.

Dawn said they all just wanted to see her happy. She did that, didn't she? She curled up on the floor of the shower and practiced her speech, and she smiled at the mirror, and she stayed in the group hug until everyone else pulled away and she did the best she could. Is it not fucking good enough for him?

"Um, Buffy?" Tara asks.

Buffy's head snaps over. "Huh?"

"Oh, um, sorry," Tara says. She nods at the donut display. "It's just… we're next in line. Do you know what you want?"

"Um, jelly?" says Buffy.

Maybe she should get Spike something anyway. That's what she would've done before, isn't it?

"Buffy," Tara says, nudging her gently.

Buffy looks between her and the employee.

"Raspberry or lemon?" the cashier repeats.

"Yes," Buffy says. "Um, I mean one of each."

She checks her pockets for her wallet, then freezes.

"Oh, it's okay," Tara says, smiling encouragingly. "I've got it. It was my turn for a snack run anyway."

She hands over a twenty and stuffs half her change in the tip jar.

"Thanks," Buffy says awkwardly. "I'm… still getting used to the 'paying for goods and services again' thing. And also—goods and services."

"Oh," Tara jokes, taking the box when the cashier hands it over, "they don't have donut shops in hell?" She takes a beat. "Oh, God. I—I'm sorry, that was really—"

"No, it's okay," Buffy says.

"No, I sh-shouldn't joke about—" Tara looks at her, wide-eyed. "You s-said you don't like to think about it. God, I'm such an idiot."

Buffy takes the donut box from her gently. "It's… really okay. I—I mean, I don't really wanna talk about—it. But you know me—big with the dark humor."

"Um, I guess," says Tara. "But you know, Buffy, if you're upset, or you… need more time—"

"Nope!" Buffy says. "I'm good. I'm great, even. We've got donuts. What else could a gal need?"

Maybe a little violence. Killing that demon last night—that was good, right? It felt right. They fought together like they always do. He used to be so into it after patrol. She used to—

It's so bright out here. So hot. It'll be better when the sun sets. 

It'll be better.

 

~*~

 

"Popping over to the shop," Spike tells her that evening. "You want anything?"

Buffy looks up from the TV. "Um, maybe I'll go with you."

He smiles at her—a sweet, soft one—and grabs his coat.

They drive over to the grocery store (Buffy endures the usual chorus of angry car horns at Spike's driving) and grab a cart. 

"Divide and conquer or united front?" Spike asks.

The fluorescent lights are so bright. Buffy fights the urge to hide behind his shoulder.

"Got a list and everything," he says, waving a half-sheet over paper at her. "It's our turn for taco night."

"Taco night," Buffy repeats.

"Every Monday." Spike grabs a plastic container of muffins from a display near the door. "I know what you're thinking—shouldn't it be Tuesdays? But I've got work, so. We rotate whose place it's at."

Buffy's eyes drift over the display cases at the bakery.

"Well, technically it's at ours two of the three, but the witches cook half the time," Spike continues. He wheels the cart around when he realizes Buffy isn't following him. "See something you like?"

She blinks, turning her head. "Um, no."

"Can get whatever you want," he says. "Nibblet's had a chokehold on the dinner menu long enough."

"Okay," she says.

Spike opens his mouth for a second, then closes it again. He steers the cart towards the back of the store.

Buffy trails behind him. The lights are giving her a headache. She's supposed to be helping, to be—to be happy for him. They used to hold hands and argue over the ice cream flavors and Mom would roll her eyes when they came back with four big tubs they couldn't even fit in the freezer. 

(He fed her a whole pint, once—one of those really fancy brands that made flavors like rum raisin and tasted even more expensive than it was. She slinked down his body and blew him with her cold, sweet mouth and he was warm. He was warm.)

Buffy reaches over and grabs his hand as he's reaching for a package of ground beef. It's his left; the wedding ring is cool between her fingers. She rubs at her arm with her other hand.

Spike leans down and kisses the top of her head. "What do you think, chicken tomorrow? Could do it on the grill."

"Playing with fire," Buffy says distantly. She glances behind them at the produce section—the misters just turned on.

Spike says, "You know I live on the—"

Buffy wanders away. She watches the water droplets spraying over the big heads of lettuce, tilting her head at the shhhh sound the little faucets make. She sticks her hand into the spray, wiggling her fingers at how it tickles.

The misters shut off again.

Fat droplets of water roll off her fingertips and splat onto a basket of bright orange peppers. She curls her hand into a fist, then shakes it dry.

Spike rests a hand on the small of her back. "Dawn does the same thing."

Buffy walks over to a display in the middle, where little plastic containers of different types of berries are arranged like slices of a pie chart.

There's a hole in her stomach.

She grabs a container, holding it up to the light.

"I thought you hated blueberries," Spike says.

Buffy puts them in the cart.

"Uh, what do we think with the chicken?" Spike asks. "Potatoes?"

"Mashed or baked?" Buffy asks.

"Whatever you want, love."

Buffy says, "Mom used to cut them in little cubes."

"I can do little cubes," says Spike. "Did she use the big kind or the little ones?"

Buffy turns to him. "I don't remember."

He smiles gently. "Guess we'll have us an experiment. Blind taste test?"

"Do you think people are allergic to potatoes?" Buffy asks.

"Pretty sure some poor sod out there is," Spike says. He drops a bag of big brown potatoes into the cart and picks up a bag of little yellow and red ones. "These're cuter. I bet it's these."

Buffy asks, "When did you buy a grill?"

"'Buy's a strong word." Spike pulls the big potatoes out and puts them back in the bin. "Back in July. Sad to say it was Finn's idea—only good one he ever had."

"I should call him," says Buffy. She follows when Spike wheels the cart back to the meat section.

"Not really a rush," Spike tells her. He grabs a thing of chicken and squints at it. "Or one of us can do it, if you want. What's that expiration date say?"

Buffy deadpans, "It says you should buy glasses."

"Oi," says Spike. He puts the chicken in the cart. "It ruins the look."

"Lame," says Buffy. 

Spike touches a hand to his chest. "The love of my life, returned to me so she can insult my fashion sense once more."

Buffy looks away.

"Bollocks." Spike touches her arm. "Was just playing, love. You know I—"

"We should get broccoli or something," Buffy says. "Dawn needs green stuff."

"Was gonna get peas," Spike says. "She likes 'em with little bits of bacon in 'em."

Buffy stares at the cereal aisle in the distance.

"Do you want broccoli?" Spike asks.

"What else does she like?" Buffy asks. She furrows her eyebrows. "I…"

"You know, I can't keep track myself half the time," Spike says. "We were vegetarian for a few weeks in there. That was a riot."

Buffy makes herself smile a little. "Spinach has iron in it."

"What's that?" Spike asks.

"Like, for blood," she says. "Like how people make fake hamburgers."

Spike huffs out a laugh. "I got a special waiver on account of bein' an obligate carnivore. Y'know, like a cat."

"Pretty kitty," Buffy says distantly, then frowns. She blinks up at him. "We were gonna do the leash thing."

Spike's eyes do that weird sad thing they've been doing. "Well, we've got plenty of time, now. Something to look forward to."

"Yeah," says Buffy. She rubs at her elbow. "I wanna go home."

Spike frowns softly. "Of course, love. Uh—" He glances at the cart. "You want me to drive you?"

"I'll walk," she says. "You can finish."

"Alright," Spike says. He wets his bottom lip, hesitating, then nods towards the door. "See you at home."

 

~*~

 

She eats half the tub of blueberries on the kitchen floor at three AM. He kisses her purple-stained fingertips when he finds her there, even though she was planning on leaving the other half out to rot.

They didn't taste like she remembered.

 

~*~

 

"Hello, party people!" Xander announces, breezing into the house on a Sunday afternoon. He gestures with a six pack in one hand. "I come bearing gifts."

Buffy looks over from her staredown with the vacuum, which she's been trying to convince herself to use for twenty minutes. "What for who now?"

"Took you long enough," says Spike grumpily from the couch. "Was gonna start without you."

"And lack an audience for your color commentary?" Xander says. "Fat chance, dead boy."

"What's happening," asks Buffy.

Xander says, "Oh, in the land of guilty pleasures—we DVR The Real World and watch it every week."

"We have a DVR?" Buffy asks.

"That we do," Spike tells her. He cracks open a beer bottle with his teeth. "You wanna watch with us, pet? We'll catch you up on all the gossip—Nicole and Malik just had a row."

Buffy looks at Xander. "You drink now?"

"Nah," he answers. "Spike gets yeasty for the both of us."

Buffy stares at him.

"Strike that from the record," says Xander.

"Which reminds me," Spike says as he gets off the couch. "Need you to take another look at my pipe before we get started."

"I hate you, man."

Spike says, "No, really, there's another leak in the basement."

"Yeah, I dug through the innuendo on that." Xander sighs, following Spike into the kitchen. "And I'm not a plumber."

Buffy trails after them, vacuum abandoned.

"That's what you said last time," Spike is saying, "and they've lasted us another month."

"Yeah, well, I'm telling ya—one of these days you're gonna have to call a professional," Xander harps. The basement stairs creak under his weight.

"And I'm telling you," Spike says, handing him a wrench, "unless he takes payment in sexual favors, it's not in the budget."

"What?" Buffy asks.

Spike turns to her with a wry smile. "Don't worry, love—I'm not having an affair with Tito the plumber, tempting as it is."

"Hey!" Xander shakes the wrench a couple inches from Spike's face. "Tito's a catch."

"Not really the point I'm trying to make here," says Spike.

"Why can't we pay him with money?" Buffy asks.

Spike has his I did a bad thing face on.

"Spike," Buffy warns.

"Hey, so, funny story," Xander cuts in, his voice a little high-pitched. "I actually need complete, total silence to do this or—"

"Look, I was gonna tell you," Spike says. "It's just I've got it handled and you don't need to worry a lick about it."

Buffy asks, "Worry about what?"

Spike says, "Nothing!"

"O-kay," says Xander. "I'm just gonna do this later."

Spike scruffs him by the back of the shirt and puts him back on the ladder.

"Are we, like, broke?" Buffy asks. 

"I think the posh term is 'house-poor,'" says Spike.

Buffy demands, "How are we broke? We have a DVR! And a grill!"

"Well, yeah, 'cause I nicked 'em," Spike says irritably. "And all of Dawn's new clothes, and the new coffee table, and the toaster. Five-finger discount doesn't work so well with the plumber and the mortgage."

Buffy stares at him. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"About which bit?" Spike asks.

"I thought Mom left us money," Buffy says.

"She did," Spike says, looking down. "But the hospital bills ate up most of it."

Buffy presses her lips together.

"Look, I'm taking care of it," Spike tells her. "There was no use worrying you."

"Are you?" Buffy asks.

Spike looks up, his nostrils a little flared. "I'm working, ain't I? Willow and Tara help with what they can, but Tara's putting herself through school. It's enough to keep the roof over our heads."

"Maybe I should get a job, too," Buffy says. "I—I can—"

"Your job is getting better," Spike says.

Buffy's chest tightens. "I'm better. I'm fine."

"No, you're not," Spike says gently. He takes a step forward, running his hands down her biceps. "Buffy, you need time. Let me—"

Buffy jerks away from him and snaps, "Stop touching me like that!"

"Okay leak's fixed bye guys see ya upstairs," Xander says quickly, worming through the space between them and taking the steps two at a time.

Buffy tries to slow her breathing.

Spike's hands hover motionless where her body used to be. Quietly, his voice incredulous, he asks, "How am I touching you?"

"Like—like I'm your helpless… helpless psycho-bitch," Buffy stammers, pushing her fingers into her hair, and suddenly there's a vice grip on her wrist.

She stumbles forward, her eyes going hot and flat when she meets Spike's gaze. He must not realize he's hurting her.

"I loved Drusilla," Spike snarls. "There's only one thing I've loved more in my sorry sodding life, and you should—"

He cuts off, eyes flicking to the left, and drops her hand in shock.

Buffy rubs at her wrist.

"I loved her," Spike repeats quietly. "And she was never helpless."

Buffy says, "I know."

Spike brushes past her, up the stairs. His shoulders are hunched and tense and he leaves the door open behind him.

A drop of pipe water plops into a bucket on the floor.

 

~*~

 

"Spike, the tacos are really good this time!" Dawn says, crunching into her second one.

"Yeah," Willow agrees brightly. "You've really got seasoning for humans down to a science."

Spike pats the empty table space between himself and Buffy. "Ta, gang. Got my taste-tester back."

Buffy plucks a squishy tomato chunk off the top of hers.

"Thanks for doing veggie ones," Tara says, smiling shyly.

Spike gives her a warm one back. "'Course, pet."

"Buffster," Xander says. "You're not eating your taco-y goodness?"

Buffy lies, "Oh, I stole a bunch while we were cooking," and leans over to kiss Spike on the cheek.

His jaw flexes as he takes a sip of his blood.

"More for us," Xander says with a shrug, and reaches across the table to build a third taco.

Buffy is about to finally try a bite when the doorbell rings. She raises an eyebrow at the group. "Do we have another friend I forgot about?"

"Oh my gosh!" Willow says excitedly. "I bet it's Giles!"

She, Dawn, and Anya spring out of their seats, running for the door.

Buffy pushes her chair away and follows more slowly, something heavy sinking through her chest when she stands. She hears the commotion in the foyer, and swallows the lump in her throat.

Giles's bags are scattered around the floor at the girls' feet. He has Anya and Dawn each clinging to his side while Willow waits patiently, but he pries them both off when he sees Buffy pass through the doorway.

"Oh, God, Buffy," he breathes, beaming at her like she's something so good, and sweeps her into a hug. She clings to him with her eyes squeezed shut. "You're alive! You're here—and you're still… remarkably strong."

"Huh?" Buffy feels his ribs creak a little. "Oh. Sorry."

She lets him go.

"Willow told me, but I—" Giles shakes his head. "I didn't really let myself believe."

"I… take a little getting used to," Buffy says with hesitation. "I'm still getting used to me."

"It's—" Giles lifts his hand a little. "Uh… you're—"

"A miracle?" Buffy guesses faintly.

Giles smiles and cups the side of her face. "Yes, but then… I always thought so."

Buffy's eyes hurt. She tries to say something, to make it funny, to make it anything besides this. Something she can fit in her mouth.

"Um," she says, shifting away. "We've got tacos."

"Ah," says Giles. "I see the tradition has carried on in my absence."

Spike claps him on the back cheerfully. "And we don't miss your sorry cooking at all, Pops. Welcome back to the better side of the pond."

"You bloody traitor," Giles says without heat. "Are you still putting those dreadful peppers in the filling?"

"Only for you," says Spike. 

"And for me!" Anya adds cheerfully. "A thousand years is plenty of time to develop a robust tolerance for capsaicin."

"Capri Suns?" asks Buffy, frowning.

Spike says, "Bloody hell, I love you."

She glances over at him—the raw glittering in his eyes—and tries to change the shape of her mouth.

She does it too late, maybe, because he looks away.

"So, are there any demons underfoot this week?" Giles asks as Xander pulls a chair over for him.

"Besides the ones who live here?" Xander jokes.

Giles gives him a dry look.

"Not since the thaumogenesis," Anya answers. "Which was more than enough excitement for one week, if you ask me."

Giles raises both eyebrows. "Thaumogenesis? How in the world did you manage—"

He cuts off, looking at Willow, who ducks her head.

"I see," he says, a little tightly.

There's an awkward silence. Buffy's chair scrapes across the floor when she sits back down.

"How's about some grub?" Xander asks with strained enthusiasm, rubbing his hands together. "I mean that in the non-literal sense. No grubs, please. Not again."

"Pansy," says Spike.

"Hey," Xander accuses, waving his fork in Spike's direction. "You screamed just as loud as I did."

And the conversation is off again.

 

~*~

 

"How are you, really?" Giles asks, lifting a couch cushion so she can tuck the pretty princess sheets underneath. "You look tired."

"Me?" Buffy asks. The tops of her cheeks feel heavy. "Nah. Fine."

Giles looks unimpressed.

"Okay, so… sleeping's hard," Buffy admits, sitting heavily on the couch. "Alone. Or… with someone else."

Giles sits down next to her, frowning behind his glasses. "Are you and Spike having trouble?"

"No," Buffy says quickly. "Not… no. Trouble with me, maybe. I'm of the trouble."

"I don't understand," says Giles.

Buffy looks up at him. "It's just… different. Everything's different. I came back and—and you were gone, and my favorite chair was gone, and… I'm pretty sure Spike and Xander are friends now?"

Giles huffs out a laugh. "If it's any consolation, those of us who were here to witness that development are as bewildered as you are."

Buffy smiles weakly before it falls off her face, looking at her bare hands. She says quietly, "I just want things like they were. I wanna feel…"

Anything.

"I can imagine how disorienting it must be," Giles says. "Feeling like the world carried on without you. Like the people you loved have…"

"Moved on?" Buffy says.

"None of us very well," Giles tells her. "Buffy, I promise you that no one has forgotten you. Spike least of all."

Maybe that's the problem. If they had, she could—

"Was it bad, Giles?" Buffy asks, her voice tiny. "Everyone says it was, but they won't—"

"Would it help to know the answer?" Giles asks.

Buffy picks at a loose thread on her jeans.

"You know the doubts I've had," Giles says eventually. "About Spike, his capacity for…" He wets his bottom lip. "We talked about Jenny, he and I."

Buffy's hands still.

"I put it in the diaries," Giles tells her. "I… after that, I swore to myself that it would be remembered—the… the love you had for each other. I owed you that much."

Her body feels far away. She paws at it, like those little crabs that have to scramble into bigger and bigger shells.

"Thank you," she says softly.

Giles's fingers brush against the edge of her shoulder blade; she stands, fingers wrapping around her own wrist and squeezing hard. His eyes follow her all the way around the corner.

 

~*~

 

Spike is smoking on the back porch, his knees spread wide and the burning cigarette half-ash where it rests between two fingers. He doesn't turn around to look at her when she closes the screen door behind her.

"Sorry," she says. "Did you wanna be alone?"

"Alone's better with you," he says.

Buffy sits next to him.

"Rupert get settled in alright?" Spike asks.

Buffy plucks the cigarette out of his hand and ashes it for him. "I guess."

"Been thinking we should get a pull-out," Spike says, taking the cigarette back. "Probably get enough use out of it."

"Can you steal a whole couch?" Buffy asks.

Spike puts a hand to his chest. "'M insulted you have to ask."

She smiles a little, without even meaning to.

"Knew I could get a grin," Spike says warmly.

Buffy scoots a little closer, their knees almost brushing. He doesn't close the distance.

They sit watching the night deepen around them. A moth the size of one of those little baby oranges flies right past Buffy's face and smacks into the porch light.

Spike smushes his cigarette butt into an overflowing ashtray near his hip and takes out another one from the pack.

Buffy reaches into his duster pocket and finds the lighter. She flicks it open, strikes the flint, and stares at the flame as it sparks into existence.

There's a breeze. It flickers the fire back and forth, a little wobbly thing clinging to life. The metal wheel digs into Buffy's thumb. She tilts her head a little.

She blinks-to at the sound of voices drifting through the open kitchen window, not sure how long she's been sitting there.

Spike is just watching her, waiting patiently with his eyes bright in the dark.

She wants to throw the lighter across the yard.

She kills the flame instead and hands the lighter over.

"You're a very stupid girl," says Giles.

Spike strikes the flint again.

"Do you have any idea what you've done?" Giles demands. "The forces you've harnessed—the lines you've crossed?"

The cigarette glows red.

"I thought you'd be… impressed or something," Willow says.

"Oh, don't worry," Giles tells her. "You've made a very deep impression."

Spike says, "You wanna go in, love?"

Buffy takes the lighter back.

"Are you saying you don't trust me?" Willow asks.

She flicks the lid open.

"Think of what you've done to Buffy!" Giles hisses.

Strikes the flint.

"I brought her back!"

Watches the flame.

"At incredible risk!"

Closes the lid.

"Risk? Of what—making her deader?"

Flick.

"Of killing us all!" Giles snaps. "Unleashing hell on earth. I mean, shall I go on?"

Strike.

"No," Willow says. "Giles, I did what I had to do—what no one else could do!"

Flame.

"Oh, there are others in this world who can do what you did," Giles says darkly. "You just don't want to meet them."

Smother.

"Maybe the word you should be looking for is 'congratulations,'" says Willow.

Flick.

"You were lucky," Giles snaps. 

Strike.

"The magicks you channeled are more ferocious and primal than anything you could hope to understand, and you are lucky to be alive—you rank, arrogant amateur."

Flame.

"You're right," says Willow. "The magicks I used were very powerful. I'm very powerful. And maybe it's not such a good idea to piss me off."

Smother.

Spike takes the lighter back, gently lifting it from Buffy's hand.

"You know Watcher-boy doesn't mean anything by it," he says.

"I guess." Buffy stares at her empty hand. "You and Dawn didn't know either."

"Not 'til I saw you standing there," Spike says. 

Buffy asks, "Why didn't she tell you."

Spike takes a long drag. "Doesn't matter now, does it?"

"Would you have helped her?" Buffy asks.

His eyes are steady, gazing at her face. "No question."

Buffy doesn't say anything.

"Know that's not what you want to hear," he says. "Know you… if it'd gone wrong, somehow, you wouldn't want that."

Maybe it did.

"But God help me, Buffy," Spike says, his voice cracking. "There's not a thing I wouldn't've done, just for a chance. Just for a moment. I'm sorry."

Me too, Buffy thinks, and tips over and over until her temple is resting against the very point of his shoulder. 

The leather is cool against her skin, and a little sticky. He smells like an old memory and it makes her stomach hurt, makes her want to eat something that will break her teeth. 

She waits for the arm around her, for the cold hand at the small of her back or the lips all tender in her hair, but nothing ever comes.

Just the cigarette smoke and the stupid moth, coming back for the light.

 

~*~

 

Buffy watches Spike grab a pillow off the bed and toss it to the floor. She hugs her pajama top tighter around herself and says, "You don't have to."

Spike looks at her a little wide-eyed, like he's afraid. 

"I don't want you to," she tries.

He puts the pillow back on the bed.

She crawls under the covers and faces him on her side, staring. Her mouth feels hollow.

Spike gets under the covers too and lays on his back. They're not touching. His chest moves like a metronome.

They forgot to turn off the light.

Buffy watches him fall asleep: the way his breathing stops all at once and he turns back into a corpse like Cinderella. He almost wakes up, once, rolling onto his side and hugging his arms around himself like there's nothing else to hold.

His fingers are wrapped around the crystal on his bracelet, just a little sliver of it visible in the dark.

There's something thick and horrible in Buffy's throat. She tries to swallow and it gets worse, gets angry at her for trying to make it go away when it's hers, the only thing that's hers, and she scrambles out of bed without waking him and shuts herself in the bathroom.

It takes her two tries to find the faucet in the dark. The shower stutters and spits at her as it comes to life and the water burns. She forgot to take her clothes off and they plaster to her skin, are better skin than skin because she can feel it. The steam eats away at the thing in her chest.

Buffy watches her toes wiggle and splash in the little puddles.

 

~*~

 

"Buffy?"

The door creaks open.

"Buffy, it's morning, love—have you been in here all night?"

The shower curtain wobbles a little.

"Christ, love, the water's freezing. Let's get you out of here."

Buffy looks up at him. "Will you come in?"

Spike hesitates with his mouth hung open. Then he climbs into the tub and sits down facing her, barely out of reach of the spray.

Little droplets flick onto his face. His sweatpants turn darker gray where the water touches.

Buffy says, "You don't hold me anymore."

Spike's eyes are shiny. "You don't want me to."

Buffy's hair is sticking to her cheeks. Her face is numb and heavy. She says, "Sometimes I do."

"Like now?" Spike asks hoarsely.

She nods and wraps her arms around her shins.

Spike climbs around her carefully—for half a second, none of the water hits her and she shudders—and then sits down behind her. He hugs her to his chest with trembling hands.

Buffy presses her face into the side of his neck, and he's right, the water must be cold because—

"You're warm," she rasps.

"... Is that okay?" Spike asks.

Buffy nods shakily. She clutches his wet-getting-wetter shirt and hiccups this tiny little sound that hurts her throat so much that she has to make it twice just to make sure, and it does. It hurts, which is something. It's something.

"Shh, love," Spike soothes. Not moving at all, except for the bob of his throat. "Let it out. I'm here."

But it's all that comes. Two little sounds and his voice like a Jolly Rancher, sweet and sharp and turning her tongue a different color until her mouth scrunches up and she spits it back out.

The water patters against his back.

"It's alright," he says, then. "I'm sorry. It's alright."

She wishes it was anything.

 

~*~

 

Downstairs, two hours later, the house is full. It smells like coffee and kinda-burnt waffles and some of the windows are open with the curtains shut over them to filter the sun, even though they flap in the breeze.

"We're like an anthill," says Buffy.

"I always thought beehive," says Spike.

Buffy frowns, watching Willow and Tara kiss over a spray can of whipped cream. "I thought all bees are boys."

"Think all ants are boys, too," Spike says.

"That's weird," Buffy says. "Why?"

"Nibblet," Spike asks, "why are ants all blokes?"

Dawn wrinkles her nose at him mid-sip of orange juice. "Worker ants are all girls, stupid. The boys are just there to breed."

"Man, what a life," says Xander.

The kitchen goes silent. Giles clears his throat unhappily.

"Who wants a waffle?" Xander asks quickly. "Buff, you want a waffle? Spike, you want a waffle? Dawn, have another waffle."

"How'd you sleep, Buffy?" Willow asks, smiling brightly.

Buffy says, "Great. Fine."

Spike walks around to the other side of the island, pulling up a stool between Tara and Dawn.

"That's great!" Willow says. "Hey, do you have plans today? 'Cause I was thinkin'—there's all these movies you need to catch up on. We could totally do a marathon."

Buffy says, "Oh, um—"

"We watched Legally Blonde last month," Anya adds cheerfully. "You would like it—it's about a small blonde woman who is improbably successful in a male-dominated field."

"Okay," says Buffy.

"Ooh, and The Princess Diaries!" Dawn says excitedly. "That one was so good."

The phone rings.

"I'll get it," Buffy says, and goes to grab the cordless phone in the living room. "Hello?"

There's silence on the other line.

"... Buffy?" asks Angel.

Buffy stares at the neatly remade sheets on the couch.

"Hello?" Angel asks. "Buffy, is that—"

"Hi," she says. "It's… hi."

"Oh my God." Angel's voice comes in a rush. "Oh, God, I got Willow's message but I didn't—Buffy, you're—"

"That's what they tell me," she says.

Angel asks, "Are you okay? Fuck, of course you're not okay. Are you—"

"I'm good," Buffy tells him. "I'm fine. It's okay."

"Willow said they pulled you out of hell," says Angel.

They're bickering in the kitchen about Harry Potter.

"Can I—" Angel cuts off. "I want to see you. Buffy, I need to… I thought you were gone. I can't tell you how amazing it is just to hear your voice."

"Thanks," she says.

"I…" Angel hesitates again. "I can come to you. Or—"

Buffy says, "No, I'll go. Or, the middle, maybe. It's… we're ants."

"What?" Angel asks. "You've got ants?"

"Mostly girls," says Buffy. "Giles is on the couch."

"... Okay," Angel says. "Uh, why don't we meet in Ventura? That's not too far for you to bus, is it?"

Buffy asks, "Can you come now? It's light."

"I'll manage," he says. "There's, uh—there's a motel I know near the bus depot. I'll get us a room."

Buffy nods.

"Uh, it's the best way to have privacy. And no sunlight," Angel says. "Is Spike there?"

Buffy says, "He's eating waffles."

"Okay," Angel says. "I'll get you the address. When will you leave?"

"Now, I guess," says Buffy.

Angel tells her how to get to the motel. She thinks she'll remember it.

"Okay," he says again. "I'll—I'll see you soon."

"Yeah," Buffy says, and hangs up the phone.

She walks back into the kitchen, where everyone is still talking all at once. 

"It was Angel," Buffy says. "I've gotta go."

The conversation stops.

Giles frowns. "Is he in trouble?"

"He knows I'm…" Buffy looks away. "He—he needs to see me. I need to…"

"We should look into an air mattress," says Spike.

"No," Buffy says. "I—I'm gonna go. I… there's a place."

Willow offers, "Oh, well, if you need a ride tomorrow I could probably take you."

"Today," Buffy says. She turns and heads for the door. "I've gotta go now. On the bus."

"Buffy." Spike is standing in front of her. "Can we talk before you go? There's something I—"

Buffy grabs her wallet from the little table in the foyer. "Um, there's not… I've gotta go now."

Spike clenches his jaw.

Buffy turns and looks back at the others, who have trailed after them and are standing in the doorway.

"Sorry," she says. "Have fun with movie night."

 

~*~

 

Spike is shoving a change of clothes into his gym bag when Buffy gets back that afternoon. She stands there and watches him strip all his rings off except the wedding band, drop them onto the nightstand, and then take off the bracelet, too.

"Hi, honey," he says, voice like a sour grape. "How was your day?"

"Fine," she says. "We just talked."

"That's new," he says. "How'd the berk get it out of you?"

Buffy blinks. "What?"

Spike glances at her, his jaw clenched tight, and turns back to his bag. He tosses the clothes back onto the bed and pulls the dresser drawer open again.

Okay. Jealous Spike. Buffy remembers how to do this one.

"Aw, honey," she says, coming to wrap her arms around him from behind. "Don't be all grumpy. You know I—"

Spike pulls away from her, nostrils flaring. "Let's cut the bullshit, alright? Your little friends aren't here and you're not fooling me."

"What?" Buffy asks, her throat going dry. "Bullshit, what?"

A thin laugh escapes Spike's mouth. Her stomach squirms when he looks at her.

"Come on, Slayer," he says. "You think I can't tell when you don't really want me?"

Buffy's chest goes hot and tight. "I—I know I haven't been… I'm sorry we haven't done it since—"

Spike laughs hysterically again. She takes a step back.

"It's not about the sex, Buffy," he says, throwing his hands up in a half-gesture and turning away from her a little. "Bloody hell, is that really what you think this is?" 

He rakes a hand through his hair, wheeling back to her with wet eyes.

"I used to be close to you! You used to let me in." His chest is moving raggedly. It looks like it hurts. "You used to let me love you."

She remembers. Does she remember? Maybe there are pictures.

"You can't," Buffy rasps. Her hands hurt, suddenly—her perfect little knuckles. Maybe the bones didn't heal right. "Spike, what if you can't?"

Spike shakes his head in disbelief. "You know I do. I've loved you since I met you—since I saw you, Buffy. Everything I've done these past two years, the reason I'm here—it's because I love you."

Buffy says, "The girl you loved didn't make it out of the ground."

Spike takes another step forward and says, "Then let me love who did."

Buffy stares at him helplessly.

"It's you, Buffy," he says gently, desperately. "Whatever you're feeling, whatever you've been through—I know it's you. I still love you."

"I can't," she says.

His face is so sad. She wonders if he was this sad when she was dead.

At least then she was perfect.

"What does that mean?" Spike asks. "For us?"

"I—I don't know," she says wetly. Her fingers are tangled in her hair. "I—I—I need to be alone."

Spike stares at her, these silent pretty tears caught up in his eyelashes and his cheeks so sharp and perfect, and it used to be so good. Didn't it used to be good? 

 

~*~

 

He leaves her.

 

~*~

 

"Buffy?"

Buffy sits up quickly, scrubbing at the wetness on her face.

"Where's Spike?" Dawn asks from the bedroom doorway.

"Um, he—" Buffy clears her throat. "I think he left for work already."

"Oh," says Dawn. "That's weird."

Buffy looks at her. "It is?"

"It's the intermediate class on Tuesdays," Dawn tells her. "You know, the one I'm in? We always walk together."

"Oh. Um." Buffy plasters a smile on her face. "He probably just figured I'd take you, since, um—I said I wanted to come watch today."

"Wait, really?" Dawn beams at her, rushing across the room and throwing her arms around her neck. "Oh my God, that would be so cool!"

Buffy stares at the pile of jewelry on the nightstand.

"We should probably go soon," Dawn chatters eagerly. "I mean, we're already kinda late 'cause my homework took forever today—oh, but I promise I did it all. I only get to go to class if I've done all my homework. Spike and I made a deal. I'm gonna go get changed!"

Buffy folds her hands in her lap. She wonders if she should change. Her clothes smell like the bus depot and the wrong brand of cigarettes from the motel.

Will he wanna see her?

It's like he's been gone forever. Why'd she let him do that?

She wants it back. She was so young when they met.

"Buffy?" Dawn asks. "You ready?"

She's dressed in hot pink workout shorts and a gray, rhinestone-studded tank top with a cat on it.

Buffy remembers her coming downstairs during Buffy's birthday party with her wrist slit, the knife fresh and shaking as she asked, This is blood, isn't it? I'm not a thing, and she thinks, Love isn't brains, children, it's blood, and did she come back with blood?

Did anyone check?

It seems like Spike would know.

"Sorry," Buffy says. "Let me get changed."

 

~*~

 

Class has already started by the time they get there. Spike is up front, leading a group of exclusively women, most of them Mom's age or older, through a warm up run of basic kicks and punches. He nods at Dawn when she scurries into an empty spot, but he doesn't seem to notice Buffy where she lingers in the doorway.

Spike is dressed in neon short-shorts and a tank top, and his boots are traded in for tennis shoes; his hair is all messy from their argument and a sweatband is pushing it out of his face even though he literally doesn't sweat. She almost wouldn't recognize him, except that she'd still know him anywhere.

Shouldn't that count for something?

"Alright, everyone, good job," he says, then raises an eyebrow. "Now, do we remember our motto?"

"There's no such thing as a fair fight," says a chorus of middle-aged ladies plus Buffy's fifteen year-old sister.

Spike grins. "That's right. Today we're gonna talk weapons. Who here brought a purse?"

Buffy watches the whole class—watches this soulless demon, this killer, teach a bunch of ladies whose other hobbies are probably knitting and romance novels how to throw a punch and swing a purse like a mace. Her baby sister goes up front for a demonstration and elbows him in the nose.

No one's ever died and made the world shut up.

"Excuse me?" a voice asks from behind Buffy. "Are you waiting for the next class?"

Buffy jumps, turning around to find yet another middle-aged woman smiling at her. "Oh, um, no, sorry. I'm just watching my sister. She's the one who's about to get kicked out for breaking my—the instructor's nose."

"Wait, oh my goodness," the woman says, her eyebrows going up. "Are you Buffy?"

"Um," says Buffy.

"You're Spike's wife!" the woman says excitedly. "Oh, it's so good to finally meet you."

Buffy blinks. "You know me?"

"Oh, I'm being so rude." The woman holds out her hand. "I'm Janet. I'm in the advanced class on Wednesdays."

Buffy shakes her hand. "Um, hi. Buffy."

"I'm just here to pick up my daughter," Janet explains. "She's the only other one Dawn's age—she was so excited to graduate to the intermediate class."

Buffy smiles a little and says, "He's a pretty good teacher, huh?"

"Oh, we all just love him," Janet says enthusiastically. "You've got yourself a keeper."

Buffy glances over at the front of the room. Spike is helping one of the women adjust her form, gesturing a little while he explains the proper stance. She gives him a Cordy-smooth smile and brushes her fingers across his shoulder as he moves onto the next student.

"Don't mind them," Janet tuts. "I swear, this town is full of cougars."

"He's older than he looks," Buffy says absently.

"What's that?" Janet asks.

Buffy turns to her. "Um, you're in the advanced class?"

"I was in the first class Spike ever taught," Janet says proudly. "You wouldn't believe how handy I am with a taser now."

"I kind of can," says Buffy. She brushes her hair away from her face.

"Oh, sweetheart, your ring!" Janet says with a gasp.

Buffy frowns; she's not wearing any—

Oh.

"Um, I—" Buffy wrings her hands together and laughing nervously. "I was gardening earlier, so—I must've forgotten to put it back on. I've been a total space cadet lately."

"You'll get used to it eventually," Janet says sympathetically. "You've only been married a few months, right?"

"Right," Buffy says faintly. "Um, right before I…"

Janet tuts again. "I was so sorry to hear about your father. How is he doing?"

"Better, I think," says Buffy.

"But I have to say," Janet tells her, "we were all hoping you'd come home soon."

Buffy furrows her eyebrows. "I…"

Janet nods in Spike's direction. "Spike is a sweet young man—we all really enjoy learning from him. But he's always been… well, it's obvious how much he was missing you. Young love is like that."

Buffy says, "I don't think…"

"But this last week or so has been different," Janet continues. She smiles a little—one of those sweet mom smiles that comes with a blanket tucked around your shoulders. "I was just saying to Barbara, 'I bet you his wife has come home, just you wait,' and here you are."

Buffy's throat is all thick and sticky. She asks, "It's been… better? He's…?"

Janet's leans in a little closer. "I think he's smiled more in the past week than he did all summer."

Buffy cups a hand over her mouth and sobs.

"Oh, sweetheart," Janet says worriedly, two warm hands rubbing at Buffy's arms. "Are you okay, dear?"

"Um, I'm sorry," Buffy says wetly, trying to scrub at her face before the tears fall. "I—I just…"

"What is it, honey?" Janet touches her soothingly. "Is it something I said?"

Buffy blinks up at her furiously, fighting the wobble in her bottom lip. "It's—it's just that I've been h-having a really hard time, and I don't… I don't feel like the person he signed up for. I—I don't get why he'd…"

"Oh, honey, but that's part of the deal, isn't it?" Janet pats her reassuringly on the cheek. "It's in the vows—in sickness and in health."

Buffy swallows harshly.

"He's looking this way," Janet whispers, like they're in on a secret now. "Let's give him a wave."

Buffy turns her head: Spike's eyes are glittering hopefully, even from across the room, but he frowns a little when he sees her face.

Are you okay? he mouths.

She smiles shakily, nods, and—something loosening in her chest—wiggles her fingers a little.

He smiles faintly back.

"Buffy!" Dawn skips to a half in front of her. "Did you see me? Wasn't I—oh, no, what's wrong?"

Buffy dabs at her eyes quickly. "Um, nothing."

Dawn is frowning. "You're all teary again."

"Just one of those days," Buffy says firmly. She smiles with encouragement. "You kicked ass out there."

"Right?" Dawn asks eagerly. "Spike said I almost broke his nose!"

"Guess it runs in the family," says Buffy, then winces when she realizes Janet and another teenage girl (probably her daughter) are staring at her. "Um, I dabble? In the—punching."

Dawn says, "Oh my God, you're such a freak."

Janet says, "We heard you're something of an expert, actually."

"Buffy could totally kick Spike's butt," Dawn brags.

"Don't I know it," says Spike, running a hand through his hair as he walks up behind them. "Good seeing you, Janet. Rachel did good today."

The other teenager smiles widely.

"Hey, love," Spike says, turning to Buffy. "Didn't expect I'd see you here."

Buffy rubs at her arm. "Can we talk?"

"Yeah, 'course." Spike tilts his head towards the door and she follows him into the hallway. "Did something happen? Are you—"

Buffy wraps her arms around his neck.

"Buff?" Spike asks. Tentatively, he slides a hand up her back. "Buffy?"

"I don't wanna be alone," she whispers. "Not without you."

Spike's voice is pained. "I'm here."

"I don't know how to do this," Buffy tells him. "How to tell you… I—I don't wanna hurt you."

"Let me worry about that," Spike says gently. 

Buffy hesitates, then nods. She pulls away, wiping at her itchy eyes with the back of her hand.

"Walk Dawn back to the house," Spike tells her. "Then meet me at the crypt in half an hour."

"Okay," says Buffy.

They head back into the classroom (no mirrors, Buffy realizes dimly) and Buffy hugs Janet goodbye. Why are mom hugs so much better than other-people hugs? It makes her eyes sting again.

"You'll be alright, sweetheart," Janet whispers. "Just give yourself time."

"Thank you," Buffy whispers back.

Dawn asks, "Can we get Taco Bell on the way home?"

Buffy winces. "Um, I forgot my—"

Her hand shoots out automatically when Spike chucks his wallet to her from across the room.

Stupid creepy vampire hearing. Buffy smiles to herself.

"Gross," says Dawn. "Do you guys even have different brains?"

"Only on weekends," says Buffy. "C'mon, let's go." She looks at Janet and Rachel. "Um, it was nice meeting you."

"Likewise, sweetheart," Janet says. "Hopefully we'll see you around."

Buffy nods awkwardly and steers Dawn towards the exit. 

"Jeez," Dawn complains, power-walking after her. "What's the big rush?"

Buffy rubs her thumb over the edge of Spike's wallet. When did he get a wallet? He used to just carry wads of cash in his leather duster like a drug dealer.

"Hello?" Dawn asks. "Earth to Buffy?"

Buffy flips the wallet open: there's a credit card and everything, even a driver's license (William Summers, born in '76), and one of those little plastic booklets that people put pictures in. 

The first one is of Buffy, then Buffy and Dawn, then all three of them together last year on Halloween. (They're Salt, Pepper, and Paprika, like from Blue's Clues). There's a picture of Spike and Xander at the Bronze and one of Anya and Tara kissing each of his cheeks. 

The last one is of Mom.

"I've… gotta patrol," Buffy says.

"Oh," Dawn says quietly. "Okay."

They're standing outside the Taco Bell.

"Do you know what you want?" Buffy asks.

"They don't have anything good," mutters Dawn.

Buffy blinks at her. "Then why'd you come here?"

Dawn lets the door swing shut in her face.

 

~*~

 

There are candles flickering in all the windows when Buffy gets to the crypt. It was Spike's, back in the day, and then it was theirs, and now it's not anybody's. But the candles look the same.

She almost knocks, even though she's never done that before.

Spike is sitting cross-legged on the sarcophagus, dressed in black jeans, a dark t-shirt and red overshirt, and his leather duster. He looks like he's about to sneer Slayer like it's a word that tastes funny.

There's no wedding ring. Her favorite armchair is in the corner with a big gash down the back.

"Slayer," says Spike. "Was starting to think you wouldn't show."

Buffy turns to him. "What's going on?"

Spike's face goes marshmallow-squishy. He holds up a bottle of whiskey. "I thought it might help—with the talking. Like the good ole days, y'know? You don't like me, I don't like you—no reason to hold back."

Buffy wrinkles her nose at the bottle. "You couldn't have done the Malibu good ole days?"

"Sorry, love," Spike says softly. "Already liked you then."

Buffy hops up onto the sarcophagus and sits cross-legged facing him. She takes the bottle and turns it slowly in her hands. It looks expensive.

"No glasses either, huh?" she asks.

Spike smiles wryly.

Buffy twists the lid off.

"You can hurt me, Buffy," Spike tells her. "Whatever you need."

"No lying and no telling, right?" Buffy asks quietly. 

Spike says, "So how about that drink?"

Buffy takes a swig; it burns all the way down and little tears spring to her eyes, and she tries to remember him back then. He was just some guy—worse than just some guy. This… thing wearing a person-face who happened to be the one who got caught under the same shitty spell as her, who was the only one who understood.

Who told her funny stories about her ex and laughed with her all night and said she was like the sun, that loving her was like the sun, and he told her about his mother (oh, God, his mother), and held her when she cried. He touched her so gently, even then, even when she was alive.

Buffy looks at him and tries to see it but she can't. He'll never be an empty thing to her again (was he ever?) and she can't do it. She can't hurt him.

"Buffy," Spike says, "if you're not ready—"

"I was with Mom," she blurts.

Spike stares at her, wide-eyed.

"I mean, I wasn't… nothing had form, really," Buffy says. She looks down at the bottle. "But I could… feel her. And she loved me. And everything was… warm, and safe, and I was loved. There was no pain or—or fear. And I was finished."

She looks up again, at the wet glassy ache reflected in his eyes and the way the candlelight goes flicker, flicker across his pretty face, and admits, "I think I was in heaven. And now I'm not."

Spike lifts a hand, shaking, and she starts sobbing before he can touch her. Big, wracking painful ones that knock the whiskey bottle onto the floor and shatter it.

"I wanna go back," she sobs, and, "I'm sorry," and, "I'm so sorry," and her face smearing tears and snot into his shirt near his hip because she's curled up like a little baby on the concrete and clinging to his thigh.

"I know," Spike says, his fingers so gentle in her hair. "I know, love. It's alright. I'm sorry, my love, I'm so sorry."

"I wanna go back," Buffy tells him.

He says, "I know."

"I'm sorry."

"I know," he says. "I love you, Buffy."

She sobs.

"I'll always love you."

Her throat cracks—

"Even if you go away again."

—like her fingernails against the coffin.

"Even if it never comes back for you, I love you."

Bleeding and desperate and ruining pretty things made of silk.

"There's no cost, nothing you have to give."

And the wood—the sharp things. Splinters that pierce the skin, and isn't it kind of like magic? She's put so much wood in so many hearts and if you whittle a stake wrong it'll leave pieces of itself in the ash.

"Just love you. Love what you are. Do you know that, Buffy? Know it isn't much, but I still love you."

It's everything. Does he know that? She's cried all the words out and it hurts too much to breathe so she just lays there and thinks it, as hard as she can, that it matters. That his hands matter, and his blood-spattered jeans, and how his teeth can go really sharp in the dark. 

His hand is still soft in her hair.

 

~*~

 

The moon is getting fat. 

Buffy looks up at it as they walk home through Maple Court, their fingers loosely woven together and hands swinging gently between them, and tries to think about how nice that is.

"I want to make it better," Spike says, adding to all the nighttime people-sounds around them.

She glances at him.

"I know I can't… nothing can replace where you were." Spike presses his lips together. "Can't make it perfect. But if I can… do something, anything—to make it a little better here. Make it decent, at least."

Tears well up in Buffy's eyes again.

Spike's eyebrows furrow. "I'm sorry, love. Didn't mean—"

"Just be Spike," she says. Her mouth trembles a little when she tries to smile. "Okay?"

He laughs a little, soft with disbelief, and his eyes go glitter, glitter before he casts them back over the street in front of them.

Buffy looks too.

A lot of people are still out. There's two different nighttimes in Sunnydale: the one normal people belong in and the one where monsters live.

She watches a group of teenagers file out of the Espresso Pump and feels like a tourist.

"Buff?" Spike asks eventually. "Can we still go tit for tat?"

"Yeah," Buffy answers. "Of course."

Spike's hand falls away from hers. He says, "I think I was trying to hurt you."

Buffy turns her head. His face is flat and smooth. 

"In the basement," he says. "When we were arguing and I grabbed you, I—"

"Spike," Buffy says, a little exasperated. "We were both mad. It's not a big—"

She cuts off.

"Oh," she says.

Spike clenches his jaw.

"... When was the last time it worked?" Buffy asks.

"Uh, this summer, we—" Spike wets his bottom lip. "You remember Warren—that wanker who made the sexbot?"

Buffy nods.

"He and two pals had delusions of grandeur while you were away," Spike tells her. "Playing supervillain make-believe, but the toys were real. They tried—" 

He takes a breath.

"They tried a lot. Eventually we ran 'em down, and I had to—" He grits his teeth. "The chip went off, but I got him off Willow. Barely noticed the pain. Thought I was just too brassed to care, but maybe it was—weakening, I don't know."

Buffy is quiet for a long time. "Did you kill him?"

"Nearly," says Spike.

There's a Coldstone ice cream shop across the street. Buffy veers for it, ignoring the honking cars and Spike's faint curses when he hurries after her.

It's chilly inside; she rubs at her arms.

"Buffy?" Spike asks.

There's so many flavors. A peppy twenty-something is smiling with so many teeth at her from behind the counter.

"We need to talk about this," Spike tells her.

"What used to be here?" Buffy asks, staring at all the big half-empty tubs.

Spike clears his throat. "Think it was a burger joint."

"Oh," says Buffy. 

"What can I get for you?" asks the person with an ice cream scoop.

One of the ice creams is bright blue.

Buffy tilts her head, staring at one with big chunks of cookie dough. "I don't care about the chip."

"What?" Spike asks.

Buffy touches a little placard near the end of one row. "I want this one."

"Strawberry cheesecake," Spike tells the employee. "With chocolate sprinkles, on a sugar cone—thanks, love." He touches Buffy on the shoulder. "You don't care about the chip?"

Buffy looks at him. "I really don't."

"The thing that stops me from killing people," Spike says slowly. He grabs her lightly by the sleeve and drags her down the counter towards the cash register. "The thing you only agreed to be with me after I promised to keep?"

Buffy takes her ice cream cone from the cashier. "Are you gonna start killing people?"

"I'm gonna eat the bloody cashier if you don't start making some bloody sense," Spike snaps.

"You are?" asks the cashier.

"He's not," says Buffy.

"How do you know?" Spike asks irritably, fumbling in his pockets. "I'm bad! I'm ev— oh, bloody hell, do you still have my wallet?"

She blinks at him.

Spike puts a hand on her lower back and steers her quickly out of the shop.

"Buffy, think about this," he says, making with the brisk pace until they're down the block. "I can hurt people again. I could hurt you."

Buffy bites into her ice cream. The chocolate sprinkles crunch really good under her teeth. "Angel could hurt me."

"Angel had a—" Spike cuts off, wheeling around to block her path. "Oh, bloody buggering fuck, is this reverse psychology? Is that what you're doing?"

Buffy holds out her ice cream in offering.

Spike takes it, staring at her blankly.

Buffy asks, "You still love me, right?" 

"Yeah," says Spike. "Even though you've gone complete sack of hammers."

Buffy asks, "You wanna make the world better for me?"

"... Yeah?" Spike says.

"Okay. Don't kill people." Buffy thinks for a second, then tacks on a, "Please."

Spike looks at her for so long that a trickle of ice cream rolls down his wrist, and then he says, "Alright."

Buffy says, "And try some sprinkles before it gets too melty."

"Driving a hard bargain," says Spike.

Buffy shrugs and keeps walking.

Spike hands the ice cream back over with a giant bite taken out of the cone.

She sinks her teeth into a chunk of cheesecake and says, "No one can know."

"About the chip?" Spike asks.

"Or me," she says. "Where I was. What they… did."

Spike says, "Secrets upon secrets, Slayer."

She slides her hand back into his.

 

~*~

 

"It's not too late to back out," Spike warns.

Buffy pushes open the trapdoor leading from the sewers into the basement. "I'm not backing out."

"You should save yourself while you can."

"Literally everyone else is helping," Buffy says.

"Yeah, 'cause we're sadists and morons," says Spike. He takes the hand she offers him up. "Or pussy-whipped."

"Some of us are lucky enough to be all three," says Xander, who's holding a cardboard box labeled Amateur Crystal Balls and wearing a pirate costume, eye patch and all.

Buffy says, "Oops."

"Season's greetings, Harris," Spike says.

"Hey, guys," Xander says. "Welcome to hell." He pauses. "Sorry, Buff."

Buffy shrugs and plucks a crystal ball out of the box. "What makes it an amateur crystal ball? Are there ball-ier balls?"

"If you wanna do any real divination you need something's been made by hand," Spike explains. "The mass-produced kind might pick up a little something here and there, but nothing to write home about."

"Like I said," Buffy says brightly, tossing the crystal from hand to hand. "Ball-ier balls."

Xander says nervously, "Uh, can I have that back? Anya will have my ball-iest balls if I—"

"Oops!" Buffy says innocently, pretending to fumble her next toss.

Spike catches it behind his back.

"I hate you guys," says Xander.

Spike puts the crystal ball back on the box and pats Xander hard on the back on his way up the stairs.

In the main room, Giles and Tara are hanging up a banner over the register while Anya adds little price tag stickers to stuff on one of the display tables. Willow is rearranging the bookshelf so all the books are facing a certain way. 

"Ahn, the muscle is here!" Xander announces, setting his box down on the counter.

"Great!" Anya roller skates (roller skates?) over to them and does a little twirl as she comes to a stop. "I need you two to move this table out of here and into the back room. It's too large and will block the flow of foot traffic."

Giles calls, "That's an antique, so do be—"

Buffy and Spike each take an end and lift; it's lighter than Buffy's expecting and one leg smacks into the wall when she shifts her weight with surprise.

"—careful," Giles finishes drily.

She flashes all her teeth at him and scurries towards the training room with Spike in tow.

They set it down against the wall. Buffy hops up onto it and leans her head back against the plaster.

"Tuckered out already, Slayer?" Spike teases.

"Xander and Anya have costumes," Buffy mutters.

Spike hops up next to her. "Yeah, but they don't even match. Amateur hour if you ask me."

"Balless," says Buffy.

"Our ones from last year are in the basement," Spike offers. "Could run home for 'em before the shop opens."

"We can't repeat costumes," Buffy tells him. "The best part is getting them."

Spike says, "Alright then."

Buffy turns her head towards him, her cheek smushing against the wall. "I loved Halloween. You loved Halloween."

"You'll love it again, ducks," Spike promises, taking her hand. His thumb skims over her knuckles. "Next year. We'll put the whole town to shame."

Buffy looks away.

"You wanna go home?" Spike asks gently.

"Maybe." Buffy takes a breath. "I—"

Xander kicks the door open, a chair under each arm. "Hey, fellow laborers. Ahn wants that smaller table from up in the loft down where the Scooby table was. Think you can handle it?"

Buffy slides smoothly to her feet, reaching up to tighten her ponytail. "I'm on it. Ooh, how funny do you think Giles's noises would be if I did it one-handed?"

"You terrify me," Xander tells her. He turns to Spike. "Do you not tremble before her?"

"Every night," says Spike, licking his teeth.

Xander flees.

Buffy side-eyes Spike.

"What?" he asks. "He ran into that one full-tilt. Couldn't just let it lie there."

"Uh huh," says Buffy. "One of these days you're gonna break him."

"Promise?" Spike asks.

Buffy grabs him by the sleeve and drags him along. "Let's go labor."

 

~*~

 

"I'm never laboring again," says Buffy, staring up at the ceiling from her really comfy spot on the floor.

Spike just grunts at her.

"And all I can say is—I hope we make as much tomorrow!" Anya tells everyone.

Buffy lifts her head weakly. "Tomorrow?"

"Oh, post-holiday clearance!" Anya explains brightly. "The cornerstone of retail."

Buffy thunks her head back to the floor.

Spike rolls over to her, out of Giles's way as he heads for the brooms, and smushes his face against her arm. She lifts her hand and pats the back of his shoulder.

"Sorry, love," he mutters.

She sighs quietly and tells the ceiling, "It's okay. We can go home and just chill, right? Feed some kids some candy, watch The Great Pumpkin…"

Spike hums. "Nice, quiet evening."

"Hey, everybody," Xander says loudly, coming around the counter to stand near Anya and Dawn. "Can I, um—uh, there's something that Anya and I wanna tell you."

"Bollocks," says Spike.

Buffy narrows her eyes at him just as Xander announces, "We're getting married!"

And, okay, with the loud again. From everyone. Buffy winces and pushes up onto her hands, looking between her beaming friends and Spike's smug expression.

"Did you know about this?" she asks him.

Spike says, "Twice-over."

Buffy looks at him.

"Oh, they both told me separately and they each think the other doesn't know I know," Spike explains, standing up with another grunt. "Was a whole thing this summer."

He offers Buffy a hand to her feet. She keeps staring at him.

"What?" he asks.

Buffy's insides feel like a bathtub someone unplugged the drain on. She asks, "Why didn't you tell me?"

Spike frowns. "Seemed a bit overwhelming, going through it all at once. Figured I'd start with the bits everyone knew."

Buffy looks down at her hands and says, "I guess I was gone a long time."

"Hey." Spike crouches back down beside her. "I'm sorry, alright? Not trying to keep secrets from you."

"I know," she says quietly. "It's… I don't wanna talk about it." She hesitates, running her fingers over the rings on his right hand, and corrects, "I… don't know how to talk about it."

Spike says, "When you do—" and brushes his lips to her temple.

She takes the hand up this time. Puts a big smile on her face and gives Xander an even bigger hug.

"Party at the Summers-Maclay-Rosenberg residence?" Willow suggests brightly.

Spike says, "I think we might be—"

"Duh!" says Buffy, pulling away from Xander to face the room. "What else would we do?"

 

~*~

 

There's music playing from Giles's old record player, which apparently Spike stole when Giles went back to England. Willow conjured up decorations to cover the whole house and the pantry has been raided for snacks. 

Buffy crunches into a potato chip and licks the salt off her lips. They're chapped; it stings a little.

Spike is sitting next to her, tapping his fingers on his knee to the beat and sipping on his favorite abomination: whiskey and blood.

At least not everything is different.

Suddenly he frowns, turning his head a little like he's listening for something.

"What?" Buffy asks.

Willow, Tara, and Dawn all walk back in from the kitchen. Dawn looks upset and Willow and Tara look guilty.

"Oh," says Buffy.

Willow walks over to Xander, but Tara comes to sit on Spike's other side on the couch.

"Alright, Sunshine?" Spike asks her.

"Did you hear any of that?" Tara asks.

Spike says, "Caught the tail end—just me."

Tara glances at Buffy nervously, then down at her hands. "Then you know it isn't."

"Want me to say something?" Spike asks.

"I don't think it'd h-help," Tara tells him. "You know what she'll say."

Buffy stands up, almost dumping her chip bowl onto the floor—Spike catches it. She goes over to Xander, Willow, Anya, and Dawn, who are all standing around talking.

"—a guy like him," Dawn is telling Anya warmly.

Xander says, "Not as lucky as me," and kisses Anya on the cheek.

"You guys are the cutest," Buffy tells him, smiling sincerely. "Our very own first-ever married Scoobies. Who'd a'thunk it?"

"Well, not the first," Anya says. "You and Spike are married."

Buffy's jaw stretches weirdly. "Oh. Um…"

"Well, that's different," Dawn points out. Her voice goes a little quiet. "It's not like they got to have a party or anything."

"Oh!" Willow says. "But we totally could. I could throw together something this weekend. Do you want a party, Buffy?"

Buffy says, "I—"

"Of course the circumstances were unusual, but it's a perfectly legal marriage. They're getting tax benefits," Anya continues. "I just think it's important to be factually accurate."

"We know, sweetie," Xander says, a little strained.

"We're the second married couple," says Anya, patting his arm.

"I know, sweetie."

Willow says, "You could do, like, a vow renewal ceremony! Except, we'd all know it was really the first one. But if there were people you wanted to invite, like from school and stuff?"

Buffy rubs at her arm. "Okay."

Willow frowns. "'Okay,' like, 'Yeah, let's do it, Willow, what a great idea?' or, 'Okay,' like, 'Stop talking?'"

Spike rests his hand lightly on Buffy's lower back and says, "Nibblet, aren't you gonna be late?"

"Oh, shoot, you're right," Dawn says.

"Late?" Buffy asks.

Dawn gives her an ugh look. "I'm hanging out with Janice, remember?"

"Oh." Buffy frowns. "That's tonight?"

"No," Dawn snarks. "It's the other Halloween."

Buffy looks around the room, where everyone is listening now. "I—I dunno, I mean, with the party, and it's already pretty dark out."

"You've gotta be kidding!" Dawn says. She actually stomps her foot. "You said I could go! And it's Halloween."

Buffy asks, "What're you gonna do?"

"We're just hanging out at the park," Dawn says defensively, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Are there gonna be boys there?" Buffy asks. "And drinking?"

Dawn rolls her eyes. "No, Buffy, it's gonna be a nun party."

Something twinges in Buffy's chest. She asks, "And you're gonna go dressed like that?"

"What's wrong with what I'm wearing?" Dawn demands.

"Nothing," says Buffy. "You just kinda look like a ho."

Dawn gasps. "It's literally your shirt!"

"Nibblet can dress like a ho if she wants, love," Spike says.

"Shut up, Spike," say Buffy and Dawn.

"I'm just saying," Spike says, putting his hands up. "You remember that little skirt you were in the first time we fought? Then again, probably would've killed you if I wasn't so distracted by your—"

"Shut up, Spike," beg Giles and Xander.

Dawn says, "I literally can't believe this! You were so going to parties with boys when you were my age."

"Well, yeah," Buffy says, pouting a little, "but—that was different. I'm… older and wiser now and stuff, and trust me—one minute you're like, 'Oh, this is so romantic,' and bam!" She snaps her fingers. "Apocalypse, dead friend-fish, very of the bad."

Dawn stares at her. "I'm just going to the park."

"That's how it starts," says Buffy.

"Why should I even bother telling you the truth when you're just gonna punish me for it!" Dawn snaps.

Spike says, "No one's punishing you, platelet."

"We just want you to be safe," Buffy tells her.

Dawn stares her down for a whole second, then turns her head with her nostrils flaring.

"You sound like Mom," she mutters.

A weird shiver runs up the inside of Buffy's throat. She tries to say something, but it's like the air is too thin.

"Maybe Janice wants to come over here," Willow offers tentatively. "Ooh, we could conjure up some board games!"

"Or, you know, just get the ones we have from the basement," Tara says tightly.

Is it supposed to hurt?

"Buff?" Spike murmurs.

"You should go," Buffy tells Dawn.

Dawn turns back to her in surprise. "What?"

"You're right," Buffy tells her. "I—I'm not Mom. You should go have fun."

Dawn tells her, "That's not what I said."

"Just get home by midnight, okay?" Buffy smiles shakily. "Sound fair?"

"... Okay," says Dawn. She edges away from the group slowly, then takes the stairs two at a time up to her room.

"Buffy," Giles asks after a moment. "Are you sure this is wise?"

Spike says, "Not really up to you, is it?"

Dawn comes back downstairs wearing a shirt that covers her whole midriff and a jean jacket.

"Can I go back to Janice's after the park?" she asks quietly.

"If you call the house," Buffy tells her.

Dawn says, "Okay."

Spike says, "Safety first, bit," and tosses her a stake.

Dawn catches it—a little awkwardly—and tucks it into the back of her jeans, under the shirt. Then she heads for the front door.

Buffy says, "Have a good—"

The door swings shut.

"—time."

At some point, whatever record that was playing ran out.

"O-kay," Xander says, clapping his hands together. "What were we talking about?"

"Buffy and Spike's fake vow renewal ceremony to disguise their real make-up wedding for their previous wedding, which was fake even though the marriage is technically real," says Anya. "But not to be confused with their previous engagement, which was also fake. Wow, if I were you two, I think I would develop some kind of complex."

Buffy walks out of the room.

"Did I say something socially inappropriate?" Anya asks.

"Gee, do you want a list?" Willow shoots back.

There's a fresh bag of candy on the kitchen island. Buffy takes it with her out the back door, circling around to the front of the house where they left a bowl of candy on the porch. 

The bowl is almost all empty except, for some weird reason, for the little boxes of Milk Duds. She picks it up and pockets a box for herself with a shrug, then carries the bowl over to the porch swing and sits down with it in her lap.

Buffy rips the new bag of candy clean in two; all the candy clatters into the bowl. She tucks the empty plastic under her butt so the wind doesn't blow it away and stares out over the yard, where parents are still walking with their kids.

She went as a princess one year, and a cowgirl, and Piglet from Winnie the Pooh. When she was seven she asked to be GI Joe and her parents said no; she went as a sugar plum fairy.

A group of kids in monster masks run up to her and snatch handfuls of candy in their tiny little fists.

"Thank you, ma'am!" says a little boy.

"Why don't you have a costume?" asks another.

Buffy smiles like they're sharing a secret and says, "I'm a superhero in disguise."

"Psh, no you're not!" the boy tells her. "You're just some lady."

You think so too? Buffy wants to ask, but they're all already down the driveway.

The front door opens.

"Hey, love," Spike says. "Mind some company?"

"Not if it's you," she says, and makes room on the swing.

Spike sits down next to her, draping his arm across the back of their seat.

Buffy listens to the bright laughter all around them, the music drifting out from inside the house, and says, "I don't know how to talk to her anymore. To any of them."

"Near impossible to," Spike tells her, "keeping the secret that you are."

"I remember when…" Buffy looks down at her lap. "Before Mom knew I was the Slayer—before anyone knew, it was like… no one really knew me. They were all looking at someone else."

"It's like that now?" Spike asks.

Buffy wets her bottom lip. She tongues at a place where it's chapped. 

"Do you wish Mum'd never known?" Spike asks.

"I…" Buffy closes her eyes. "Wish it wasn't a choice."

"You could tell them," Spike says. "You don't have to hide from them, Buffy."

Buffy shakes her head, turning to look at him. "What if they don't—"

She swallows thickly.

"What if they don't want me anymore?" she asks. "I mean, sure, your friend's a little wonky after coming back from hell? You can deal. But who wants to be around some ungrateful bitch who'd rather be somewhere else?"

Spike tips her chin up, the edge of his finger so gentle it wobbles a little.

"I do," he says softly.

Buffy lays her head on his chest.

Spike wraps his arm around her, tucking her against his side and touching his lips to the frizzy top of her hair.

Two more groups of kids run up and take candy from the bowl.

Buffy asks, "Tell me about our wedding."

"What's that, love?" Spike asks.

"People must've asked you, right?" Buffy says, lifting her head a little to glance at his face. "What did you say it was like?"

Spike's eyes are doing that sad, pretty thing. He presses his lips together and turns his gaze out towards the dark horizon, like he's picturing a memory, and his voice is wistful when he tells her.

"It was a daytime ceremony, in the park," he says, and his fingertips caress her jaw when she laughs almost silently. "Under those big trees with the flat leaves that crunch under your boots in the fall—the kind you go out of your way to give a good stomping."

Buffy closes her eyes.

"We left a seat for Mum in the front row, and the whole place was dappled in shadow but it was like the sun shone right there the whole time." Spike brushes a cool soothing line across her bare arm. "Giles walked you down the aisle. You had the most beautiful dress—like a princess, you were, with those little iridescent beads all over it that glitter in the sun, and I'm not ashamed to say I cried soon as I laid eyes on you."

Her chest hurts. Behind her eyes hurts. Her nose is aching where his collarbone digs against the cartilage.

"I looked at you and knew all over again," Spike says softly. "It was like the first time—like knowing you the first time, except it wasn't that at all. More like you'd been away for so long and you'd just come home."

Her tears are warmer than the air.

"We wrote our own vows," Spike tells her. He chuckles a little. "Bit nontraditional-like. You had Dawnie and Red with you, and I had Anya and Tara. We let Xander officiate, which I swore up and down would be a mistake, but he did alright in the end. He's like that, I've learned. They're all like that."

She presses her face into the side of his neck.

"And none of my guests ate any of your guests," Spike continues, his hand coming up to pet her hair. "And there was dancing and bottomless Bloody Marys at the reception, and not a single demon crashed that wasn't invited. And so we all lived happily ever after."

There's a tiny bubble in the middle of Buffy's stomach. It shimmers and wobbles and threatens to pop, and she doesn't know what's inside and she's so scared to find out. She's so scared.

"You must hate me," she says, and the wobble is in her voice, too.

"I love you," says Spike.

Buffy doesn't say anything.

"Why would I hate you, love?" Spike thumbs a tear off her cheek. "I couldn't—not ever again."

"Because you're so good," Buffy tells him wetly. "You're so good to me, all the time, and I can't give it back. Part of me still wants to go."

Spike brushes the loose strands of hair away from her face. "I do still miss the spell, sometimes—that first one, the way you loved me. The way it felt to…"

"I'm sorry," she croaks.

"But I don't hate you, Buffy." Spike hugs her closer and she lets him even though it feels like the dirt (like it's swallowing her again) because she knows. She knows it's him. "Just wish it could be different for us. Wish I could make you feel like it did."

Buffy says, "You were there with me."

Spike goes still.

"Or, I—" Buffy sits up all the way, looking him in the eye. "I think maybe it was William—that he… his soul? It—it found me, because I… like I said, there wasn't form or anything, but I could feel Mom, and—and Kendra, and Miss Calendar and all my friends who…"

Spike says, "Buffy."

"And it's kind of hard to explain, but, um." Buffy smiles a little, and there are more tears stinging her chewed-up lips but his hands are in hers now and that's good. It's good. "All the, um, senses and stuff were kind of mixed up, like you could see sounds and—I promise I'm not crazy?"

Spike cups the side of her face.

"It's like I could… feel you," she says. "He wrote poetry for me. It tasted like blueberries."

Spike is crying a little too, and smiling. He says, "My poems remind you of a fruit you hate."

Buffy laughs and leans forward, touching their foreheads together. "It wasn't like that. It was like… if you pictured what a blueberry should be, if it tasted good. Like, what I always wanted it to be but couldn't find."

Spike asks, "So your sudden change in diet…?"

"I thought it'd help me… I dunno, feel like I was there again?" Buffy frowns a little. "It didn't work. Turns out Earth blueberries and Buffy? Still un-mixy things."

Spike turns his head. "Right."

Buffy winces. "Bad metaphor. I didn't mean—"

"It's alright, Slayer," Spike tells her.

Buffy takes his chin in her hand, turning his face back to her.

"Earth Spike and Buffy are very mixy," she promises. Her bottom lip wobbles a little. "You're… kind of the only mixy thing. I… I'm just trying to say—" Buffy swallows. "I didn't forget you, you know? You were with me."

Spike tilts his head a little, and he looks at her like he does, and she remembers. All those times she kissed him and it didn't count, was a spell or a test or something else, and even when it felt good (amazing) right then, she felt hollow and sad afterwards. 

She remembers how good it was when it was finally theirs.

Buffy closes the distance between them, pressing her mouth tentatively to his, and Spike kisses her back sweet and soft. His hand skimming up the back of her shirt, her body making his tremble.

She smiles at him when they pull away; he watches her with half-lidded eyes and his lips still gently parted with wonder.

"Hey," she says shyly. "Our first real post-postmortem kiss."

Spike brushes the loose hair from her face with his knuckles. "Still good?"

"Yeah," she whispers, leaning into the touch. "Still good."

 

~*~

 

They linger on the porch for another half hour or so; Buffy tugs her hair out of its ties so he can run his fingers through it, murmuring about how beautiful it is and kissing the top of her head. Sometimes she tips her face up and kisses him all slow and sleepy, her fingers scrunching lazily in the worn fabric of his shirt.

The candy bowl's almost empty again when a childlike voice shouts, "Mister Spike!" and tiny footsteps pound up the driveway.

Buffy sits up a little, then folds her hands in her lap when she recognizes Rachel from the gym following a younger girl—maybe five or six, dressed up like a werewolf with fake claws and everything—to the porch.

"Hey, pidge," Spike says, handing the candy bowl to Buffy so he can meet the little girl at the bottom of the porch steps. "How ya been?"

The little girl nails him in the shin with a sharp kick.

"Oi!" Spike complains, hopping around on one foot like a character in a sitcom. "Sharp as ever, I see."

"She bit a fifth grader last week," says Rachel. She's dressed up as a slutty bumblebee, which is so weird and specific that Buffy immediately likes her three hundred percent more.

Spike crouches down and raises an eyebrow at the girl. "Did the fifth grader deserve it?"

"Yeah!" the girl says. "He called Samantha ugly and tried to push her off the swings, so I bit his arm and went for the kneecaps like you taught us."

Buffy cups a hand over her mouth to cover up a giggle.

Spike's grin is warm and fierce. "Good for you, pidge. How's your new teach treatin' you? You minding him?"

"Sometimes." The little girl scrunches up her face. "He's nice and everything, but he doesn't let us do all the cool stuff you taught us when we spar. He says it's illegal."

"And what did you tell him?" Spike asks.

"No fair fights!" the girl recites dutifully.

Spike ruffles the girl's hair. "That's my little pigeon."

Buffy comes and sits next to him on the steps. She pats him on the knee and asks, "You got super fired, huh?"

"Just from teachin' twelve and under," Spike says. He puts a hand to his chest. "Apparently I'm a bad influence on the youth."

Rachel deadpans, "No idea where they got that from. Hi, Buffy."

Buffy smiles at her. "Hi. Rachel, right?"

The little girl's eyes widen. "Are you Missus Spike?"

Buffy's grin strains. She leans in closer and says, "Spike is Mister Me."

"Cool," says the little girl.

"Want some candy, pidge? Rach?" Spike offers.

Buffy shakes the bowl invitingly.

"Oh, thanks!" Rachel says. She politely plucks a lollipop out of the bowl, narrowly avoiding getting clawed by her younger sister when she plunges both paws in. "I keep getting told I'm too old for Trick or Treating."

"Age limits on candy are cruel and unusual punishment," says Buffy. "When I'm president, there will be candy for all."

Rachel's face does a scrunchy thing as she sucks on her lollipop.

Spike kisses Buffy on the temple.

"Is Dawn home?" Rachel asks.

"Nah, she's out causing mischief," Spike answers. "Think they're at the park, if you wanted to go find her. Sure she wouldn't mind."

Rachel glances down and says, "Um, that's okay. I'm… not really sure that's my crowd." She looks up again. "Will you tell her I say hi, though?"

"'Course," says Spike.

The little girl, apparently bored now, tugs hard on Rachel's hand. "Raaay, we've gotta go three more blocks still. Let's go!"

"Three more blocks?" Rachel asks skeptically. "That's what you said two blocks ago."

The little girl tries to take off at a run and gets snapped back to Rachel's side like a rubber band when Rachel refuses to budge.

"Oh my God, say goodbye to Spike and Buffy, you little jerk," Rachel tells her, clearly exasperated.

"Bye Mister Spike!" The girl flails her free hand in the air. "Bye Missus Buffy!"

"See ya, pidge," Spike says. He nods at Rachel. "Stay safe."

Rachel smiles at him. "Totally."

Buffy waves as the two of them head back down the driveway, then thunks her head onto Spike's shoulder.

"Tired, pet?"

"Beyond," says Buffy.

"Can head in," Spike offers. "Festivities are probably wound down a bit."

Buffy makes a grumbly noise.

"Yeah," Spike agrees. "Bit weird in there, innit?"

"What's up with Willow and Tara?" Buffy asks.

Spike hums, propping his cheek up on the top of her head. "Tara thinks Red's using too much magic. Comes up every now and then."

Buffy frowns. "Do you agree?"

"Can't say it's never crossed my mind," says Spike.

Buffy thinks back to something Willow said before—the morning after Tara got released from the hospital.

"She's afraid of her," Buffy realizes.

"... Yeah," Spike says reluctantly. "Sometimes, I guess."

"But that's not fair!" Buffy sits up with a flash of heat. "Just because Willow's, like, really powerful now doesn't mean she's a bad person."

"No one's saying that, love," Spike says gently.

Buffy narrows her eyes at him.

"Red's alright. She's one of ours—did a lot for Dawn and me this summer," Spike says. "I'm just not blind to her."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Buffy asks. 

"It means magic's got consequences," Spike says. "You don't get something for nothing in this world, not ever. And Red's always gettin'."

Buffy crosses her arms. "It still sounds like you guys are just judging her for being good at magic."

"You think I don't know I'm in a glass house?" Spike asks. "Hell, I'm in a paper tent. I could have myself a nice massacre by morning if I wanted—so could you, for the record."

Buffy presses her lips together.

"It's intoxicating," Spike tells her. "I was a pathetic little ponce of a man when I was alive, clinging to his mother's skirts and alone otherwise. When Dru sired me, when I realized I never had to feel weak again…"

He trails off, a wistful look in his eye that makes Buffy's skin crawl.

"And the kind of power Red's messing with?" Spike says, suddenly snapping back to the present with his eyes on hers. "It goes down smooth."

Buffy says—

Spike bolts down the driveway.

"Spike?" Buffy shouts, knocking the candy bowl onto the ground in her rush to chase after him. "What the hell?"

"Dawn!" Spike shouts—maybe to her. 

He's sprinting at full speed, but Buffy overtakes him and then almost hits the ground when she realizes what they're running to: two teenage girls stumbling down the middle of the street, one leaning heavily on the other with her feet scraping across the pavement. 

Fuck. Fucking God oh my God, from this distance, Buffy can't tell which one—

Dawn's the one walking. She stops directly under a streetlight at the sound of Spike's voice, swaying with big flat eyes and staring them down with her arms trembling from holding Janice's weight. There's a big red and gold jacket draped over her shoulders; it makes her look so small.

"I killed them," she tells Spike. "Like you taught me."

Buffy skids to a half in front of them, scanning them both desperately for injuries: Dawn had a shallow bite on her neck; Janice's is mangled and still bleeding.

"Shit." Buffy takes Dawn's face in both hands. "What happened?"

Spike pries Janice away from Dawn, scooping her into his arms.

"We were in the woods," Dawn says. "I staked him. It was easy."

"How many?" Buffy asks. "Did you get them all?"

Dawn says, "The ones who brought us there. I—I think I heard more, but we ran."

"That's good, Dawnie," Buffy tells her. "You did good."

"She's nearly drained," Spike says. "Heartbeat's… Slayer, she needs a hospital—like twenty minutes ago."

Buffy asks Dawn, "Did he make her drink?"

Dawn stares at her.

"Dawnie, listen to me," Buffy says. "Did he make her drink?"

"Can't Spike just do it?" asks Dawn.

Buffy drops her hands.

"Buff," Spike says. "The car."

Buffy runs for the house. She throws the door open and grabs Spike's keys off the table in the foyer, and looks up to see all her friends staring at her in shock.

"What's happened?" Giles asks.

"Dawn's okay," Buffy says. "Janice is hurt pretty bad—we're going to the hospital, now. Something went down in the woods behind Restfield—definitely vamps, not sure how many. Can you guys take care of it?"

Giles says, "Of course. But what—"

Buffy's out the door again.

 

~*~

 

"I'm not gonna let you hurt her," says Dawn, her voice steely and wet. 

Buffy's eyes flick to Spike, who's staring down the road with his jaw clenched. He runs another red light.

"Dawn," Buffy asks, "what're you talking about?"

Dawn is sitting in the back seat with Janice's head cradled against her chest, petting streaks of her own blood into her hair. She's still wearing the stupid jacket.

"If she turns," Dawn says. "You're not gonna kill her. I won't let you."

Buffy says, "Dawn—"

"We can get her a chip like Spike's or do the stupid soul curse or whatever, or she can eat freaking serial killers and pedos and it's not like you can kill every vamp in Sunnydale so you can just leave her alone." Dawn's nostrils flare. "You've gotta promise."

Buffy says, "It's not gonna come to that. We're gonna get her help in time, okay?"

Dawn demands, "Promise."

The car crashes half onto the curb when Spike swerves around a group of pedestrians.

"You know I can't," says Buffy.

"Yes. You. Can," says Dawn, her voice going higher-pitched over every word. "If you two get a second chance so should everyone else."

"Dawn, we've talked about this," Buffy says. "Nobody comes back the same."

Dawn spits, "You sure as hell didn't."

"Dawn," Spike says sharply.

Buffy doesn't say anything.

"You're barely here," Dawn tells her. "Half the time you're not even looking at us."

Buffy stares out the rolled-down window.

"Say something!" Dawn snaps.

The wind whips Buffy's hair around in her face. She says, "She gets a choice."

"... What?" Dawn asks.

"If she turns, she gets a choice." Buffy rolls up the window when the car screeches to a halt outside the ER. "That's more than Spike or I got."

She climbs out of the car before the engine's shut off.

 

~*~

 

Buffy walks back into the waiting room with a watery hot chocolate in each hand and a bag of vending machine Doritos in the crook of her arm. They've been at the hospital for thirty-five minutes; the lights are giving her a headache.

Dawn is curled up in her seat with her head on Spike's shoulder. She shuffles even closer to him when Buffy sits down on her other side.

"You sure you don't wanna eat something?" Buffy asks her.

Dawn doesn't say anything.

Buffy leaves the Doritos in her lap. She's not really hungry either.

"What did you mean before?" Dawn asks. "When you said you didn't get a choice."

Buffy glances at her. "I meant what I said."

Dawn lifts her head accusingly. "But that makes it sound like you needed one. Didn't you wanna come back?"

"It's complicated, nibblet," Spike says.

Dawn says, "Explain it."

Spike sighs a little, rubbing his thumb over the skull ring on his right hand. "I didn't ask for this chip in my brain, bit. And when I got it—well, you wouldn't like to be around me back then. It wasn't until—until Buffy, that I really believed I could live with it."

("If we leave him alone, he's gonna stake himself," Willow said.

And Buffy asked, "Remind me why that's a bad thing?")

Buffy crinkles up the plastic bag in her lap.

"And I didn't really know what I was getting into, when Dru turned me. It's the kind of thing you don't understand, 'til you're in," Spike continues. "And, listen—I love you, nibblet. I love our family. It's just that bein' happy where you are ain't the same as bein' happy about how you got there."

Dawn is quiet for a moment before she says, "I guess I get it."

Spike tucks a strand of hair behind her ear.

"But you did all that evil stuff before you got the chip," Dawn says. "Don't you think if you got to come back, and right away someone was like, 'Hey, you can't do evil stuff,' it would've been better?"

"... I don't know," Spike says. "I—I can't think of… Dru, she—"

"You don't have to talk about it," Buffy tells him.

Spike wets his bottom lip restlessly. "It doesn't feel evil when you do it—nothing does. Nothing feels good—feels morally good, either. It all just… is. It still all just is."

"That sounds… lonely," says Dawn.

Spike tilts his head at her.

"If nothing's right or wrong," Dawn says slowly, "like, if hurting people doesn't matter, then how do people matter?"

(You belong to your soul.)

"Dawn," Buffy says quietly.

"'Cause I love you, bit," Spike says, his voice a little strained. "I love Buffy, and our whole sodding lot of friends. It hurts when you hurt."

"Stupid," Buffy mutters.

Dawn asks, "And that's enough?"

"It's like this," Spike says, and plucks the Doritos bag out of Buffy's hands. "Borrow these, love?"

Buffy shrugs.

Spike tugs the plastic open and tilts the bag towards Dawn. "All these crisps taste the same, yeah? You'd eat the whole bag just fine?"

"Um, yeah?" Dawn says.

"Say everyone around you told you that these ones—" Spike holds up a chip that's folded over on itself. "Are bad. Not bad for you of course, it's just wrong to eat 'em. You'd say…?"

"That's stupid," Dawn answers. "I'd eat them anyway."

Spike says, "Exactly. Now, let's say every time you eat one of these wonky ones, someone gives you a zap from a shock collar. You gonna keep eating 'em then?"

"I guess not," says Dawn. "But I'd be really mad about it."

"Now close your eyes and picture the person you love most in the whole sodding world," Spike tells her. "You doing it?"

Dawn nods.

"Then imagine every time you eat the wrong sort of chip, it hurts the person you love," Spike says softly. "Sometimes it hurts so bad they almost can't stand it—and they know it's you doin' it. Wouldn't you like to be the kind of person who doesn't hurt them?"

Dawn opens her eyes. "So if your chip stopped working or something, you wouldn't start eating people again?"

"No," Spike says, lifting his gaze to meet Buffy's. "Can't say that I would."

"And you don't feel lonely?" Dawn asks.

Spike's smile is crooked. "Not so often, these days."

(You will be like water in his hands.)

"Good," Dawn says, and Buffy leans over the top of her head to kiss him. "Oh my God, stop squishing me!"

She wriggles and shoves Buffy away.

Buffy thumps back into her seat. She looks at her hands.

Someone comes over the intercom, paging a doctor.

"What did you mean, anyway?" Dawn asks.

She picks at a loose thread on her jeans.

"Buffy," Dawn says.

She looks up.

"You said you or Spike didn't get a choice," Dawn says. "What choice didn't you get?"

Buffy says, "I—"

"It's not like anyone would pick hell," says Dawn.

"I—I know," Buffy stammers. "I meant… being a Slayer. Being… being different?"

Dawn looks at her for a long, hard moment, then leans her head against Spike's shoulder again.

"But Dawn," Buffy says quietly. "You… you know Janice isn't gonna be in hell, right? She's—she'd get to go to heaven?"

"So what?" Dawn mutters.

Buffy's throat is all swollen and cracked. "So at least she'd be happy. You know, maybe it'd be… it'd be better."

Dawn sits up with a jolt, her eyes suddenly flashing. "God, what is wrong with you?"

Buffy blinks at her.

"You think she'd be better off dead?" Dawn asks, her voice ticking up in volume. "How can you even say that?"

There are people staring. Buffy says, "That's not what I meant. I—I just mean, if she's somewhere good, maybe she wants to stay. Maybe it's not right to ask her to leave."

"But it's not like heaven's going anywhere. Why wouldn't she wanna—" Dawn swallows. "Why wouldn't she wanna stay with me? I'm not good enough?"

"It's not like that," Buffy tells her. "Dawn, you don't understand what heaven is like, okay?"

Dawn snaps, "Like you do?" and then her face goes blank.

They're still paging that stupid doctor.

"Oh," says Dawn.

Buffy looks at her hands.

"Why don't you just get it over with, then?" Dawn asks, her voice low and trembling fiercely.

"What?" Buffy asks blankly.

"If heaven's so much better than being around me," Dawn says slowly. "Maybe you should go back."

It's supposed to hurt, right?

Dawn jumps out of her chair and runs off further into the hospital. Her sneakers squeak against the linoleum and Buffy's teeth hurt all the way up to her jaw.

Spike says, "Buffy—"

She says, "Go."

He follows Dawn.

 

~*~

 

Janice lives.

 

~*~

 

Buffy stares at the little pile of glittering things in her mother's jewelry case, sifting through them with her fingers and letting the cool metal and sharp gemstones catch in the light. They're so pretty. She used to steal things from here all the time—expensive earrings made of real gold, a necklace she just had to wear with that dress.

There's a piece of paper that says they belong to her, now.

And to Spike, who walks into the room and asks, "What's all this, love?"

Buffy picks a ring out of the pile: it's yellow gold with a fat princess cut emerald in the center and two little diamonds on each side. 

"Which one would you give me?" she asks.

"Uh, feels like I'm walkin' into something here," Spike says warily.

Buffy says, "I need an engagement ring."

Spike comes up next to her, peering into the box. "Traditionally, one goes to the jeweler's and buys one for his lady."

"I found her wedding ring," Buffy says. "I think she gave the other one back."

"I can get you your own, Buffy," Spike tells her.

She picks up another ring. "It's just pretend. We don't need to spend money."

"Right," says Spike.

Buffy turns to him. "Do you think the ruby? I like the ruby."

"Yeah, it's nice," Spike says. "Buff, you don't have to do this."

She blinks.

"If you don't want one," he says. "Not really, we can—"

"People will notice," Buffy says. She looks down at the ring and its blood red stone. Isn't it weird how the color's exactly right? "We need them to believe us. It's not like we can get un-married."

"Also known as divorce," says Spike.

A muscle in her shoulder twitches.

"It was a good plan," she says. "You can't let them take Dawn away. She belongs here."

"I never would've done it if I knew you'd come back," Spike says.

She looks up at him again, something wet sliding down her throat. "You don't wanna marry me?"

Spike's lips stay parted for a long time before sound comes out. "Not without you."

Well, she's here. Isn't she?

"C'mon, ducks," Spike tries, touching lightly at her arm. "You haven't slept since before the hospital. Let's sort this out after a kip, alright?"

She watches the lines crease all over his face. "Are you tired?"

"... Yeah," he says. "Could use some company, if that's alright."

Buffy says, "Okay," and slips the ring onto her finger. It's hard to get it over her knuckle, which is swollen from the day before.

It looks so small. Dainty. She hasn't changed her jewelry since she died.  

She takes a pair of dangling earrings, too, the same blood red, and trades them out for her little hoops. The box goes back on the shelf in the basement with the rest of Mom's stuff they didn't give away.

Just a shelf, and strangers wearing the clothes Buffy used to get in trouble for borrowing without permission. 

She probably wouldn't have kept any.

Upstairs, Spike is laying on his back in their bed, one hand under his head and the sharp cut of his shoulder muscle stretched out in definition. He turns his head to her and smiles a little.

Buffy turns out the light. She strips down to her cami, unhooks her bra from underneath, and wriggles out of her jeans. They haven't turned the heat on yet and it's a little chilly, even on the second floor.

She curls up with him under the covers and lays her head on his chest.

"Sleep well, love," Spike murmurs.

 

~*~

 

Pressing a kiss to his sleep-smooth forehead, Buffy climbs out of bed and starts to write.

 

~*~

 

The little bell jingles when Buffy walks into the Magic Box later that week. Spike was gone when she woke up, and she's not really sure where he'd be besides here.

The house was really empty.

Sure enough, Spike, Anya, and Tara are all crowded around one end of the research table with big, extra dusty books opened between themselves.

"Hi, guys," Buffy says. "What's up?"

Anya yelps and slams her book shut.

"O-kay?" says Buffy, narrowing her eyes suspiciously when Spike and Tara close their books too. 

"You can't be here," Anya tells her with blunt cheer. "We're doing top secret research."

Buffy raises an eyebrow at Spike. "Top secret, huh?"

Spike rubs the back of his neck. "Uh, not the word I'd use for it."

"He said if we told you anything about what we're doing, he'd crack our necks open and drink our blood like we were Coca-Cola," says Anya. She smiles enthusiastically. "Obviously he can't actually do that, but I've chosen to respect the emotional weight behind the threat."

"Uh huh," says Buffy.

Tara offers, "Maybe 'surprise' is a better word?"

"Yeah," Spike agrees, pointing a finger at her. "That's it. Surprise research underway, very hush hush or it'll ruin the whole thing."

"Uh huh," says Buffy again. "Is this a good surprise or a cleaning you out of the carpet surprise?"

Spike says, "I'd never make you vacuum, baby."

Buffy says, "Good," and kisses him on the cheek when she pulls up a chair.

Anya drags her book further away from Buffy and says sternly, "No peeking."

Buffy rolls her eyes, leaning into the arm Spike drapes around her shoulders. "Guys, I don't even read books when Giles tells me to."

"What am I telling you to do?" Giles asks, walking in from the back room. 

"Hopefully nothing," says Buffy.

"Touche," he says drily. "But since you're here—would you like to train today?"

Buffy sticks out her bottom lip. "Aww, Giles! I just got all comfy. Plus, I've gotta keep Spike warm or he'll only be seventy-six degrees."

"It's horrible stuff, really," Spike agrees.

Giles makes a grumpy old man noise and goes to flip the sign to Open.

"Anya, look at this," Tara says, sliding her book over.

"That seems unsubstantiated," says Anya. "I'll try to cross-reference it."

Buffy leans her head on Spike's shoulder and closes her eyes. Maybe she'll nap a little.

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your mouths!" Xander announces over the jingle of the bell. "Okay, that came out wrong."

"We've got coffee!" Willow says cheerfully. "And donuts!"

Buffy sighs and picks up her head.

The two of them pull up chairs at the table and start distributing the goodies.

"Oh, Buffy," Willow says apologetically, "we didn't know you were coming, I'm sorry. We can totally run back and get you something!"

"It's okay," says Buffy.

Spike offers, "Share mine, love?"

She takes a bite of the donut he holds out. A little jelly smears on her cheek and he smiles when he wipes it away, sucking his thumb into his mouth.

"Ooh, whatcha researching?" Willow asks eagerly, leaning towards Tara's book.

"Nothing!" Tara says quickly, tugging the book away and closing it again.

Buffy frowns. Secret-from-Willow research?

Willow is frowning too. "A History of Vampires? What're you doing with that?"

"Nothing," Spike echoes smoothly. "Just having us a laugh—all the inaccuracies and all."

Buffy gives him a sharp look; he just sips his coffee, cool as a cucumber.

Extra weird.

"Um, okay," Willow says skeptically. She rips a chunk off her donut.

"I, for one, am just happy to be excluded," Xander says. "Books bad, donuts good."

"Stay tuned for more PBS Kids," Spike says drily.

Xander asks, "So, Buff, got any plans for the day?" 

Buffy says, "Um—"

"Ooh! You know, I was thinkin' maybe you could come to school with me," Willow says excitedly. "I know you missed the enrollment deadline, but you could always audit. You know, get back into the swing of things for next semester?"

"Instead of college, have you considered gainful employment?" Anya asks. "You were very helpful at Halloween. I would gainfully employ you—just not too gainfully, or it'll affect my profit margins."

"Our profit margins," Giles says from the register.

Anya says, "Oh, you can pay Buffy as much as you want with your half of the money. Far be it from me to regulate your spending."

Buffy itches at her hand.

"You know, the Dawnster's seemed a little down lately," Xander says. "Maybe we should take her to a movie or somethin' after school."

"Good idea," says Tara. "I'll get the newspaper and see what's playing."

Buffy stands up, shrugging Spike's arm off her shoulders, and looks at Giles. "Training, huh?"

Giles blinks at her, mid-transaction with a customer. "Ah, yes—of course. One moment? Anya, will you—?"

"Sure," says Anya, finishing off her donut and bringing her coffee with her to the register. "Welcome to the Magic Box! Thank you for making purchases! Can I interest you in a rewards card?"

Buffy follows Giles into the training room.

 

~*~

 

"How are you adjusting?" Giles asks her a few hours of punching stuff later.

Buffy does a backbend out of her handstand and hops to her feet. "Huh?"

"It's been about a month since you came back, yes?" Giles prompts. "We… haven't really spoken of it, since…"

"I'm great," Buffy says automatically. She rolls out her neck. "I'm sleeping better. I mean, I'm sleeping. Sometimes."

Giles frowns.

Buffy sits next to him where he's whittling a stake. She watches the little wood shavings flutter to the floor. "It's better, with Spike. Most of the time."

"I noticed the ring," Giles says, nodding towards where she left it on the windowsill to train.

"That's…" Buffy sighs. She picks up a piece of scrap wood and another knife. "Not the better part."

Giles hums. "And the others?"

Buffy shears off a chunk of wood. "What about 'em?"

"You seem… distant," Giles tells her. 

Buffy's hand almost slips. "I'm sorry."

"That's not what I mean," he says. "Buffy, you hardly owe us anything. I can only begin to imagine—" He pauses, resting a hand on her shoulder. "But we often pull away from others when we… well, when we need them most."

A weird stinging feeling creeps up behind Buffy's eyes. 

"Giles, there's so much," she says. "I don't know how to do this."

"I understand that it feels that way," he says gently. "The nature of your death, and—and returning from hell—"

Buffy stands up. She runs a hand through her hair, tugging half of it out of her ponytail with a wince. 

"Have I said something?" Giles asks.

Buffy says, "Please don't hate me."

Giles says, "Buffy, you know that I could never—"

"I was in heaven," she says, staring wetly over the room. "I—I've been trying to find a better way to say it or something, but—" She turns to look at him desperately. "It always comes out wrong."

Giles is looking at her with this—this expression, like…

She doesn't know. He used to make sense to her, even though she never made sense to him. But he's just looking at her and waiting like there could possibly be something else.

"Buffy," he says eventually, when he realizes there isn't. "Knowing this, I—I don't know what to say. It… I feel…"

"Angry?" Buffy supplies.

"Relieved," he says.

She stares hollowly.

"I spent the past few months not only grieving your death, but convinced you were undergoing un-unbearable torment," Giles tells her, eyes shining stubbornly. "Countless years of suffering, your thanks for saving the world. And… to know you were safe. That you were happy—"

"But now I'm not," Buffy croaks. She shifts a little, wrapping a hand around her opposite arm. "Giles, now I'm not."

His face falls.

"I was… torn out of there," Buffy says, lifting her eyes to the ceiling. She closes them. "By my friends."

"None of them know?" Giles asks.

Buffy shakes her head. "Um, Spike does. He… he's been—better than I deserve."

"Impossible to imagine," says Giles softly.

"And Dawn," Buffy says, her voice shaking a little. "Um, she figured it out, and it was—it's been really bad. She's so angry at me."

"She's still a girl," Giles reminds her. "She's suffered so much loss—it must be difficult for her to grasp."

Buffy asks, "How am I supposed to tell them? When—when they…?"

"Buffy." Giles stands up, taking a step towards her. "We all care about you so incredibly much. It is indescribable. The consequence of that is—is accepting when we've hurt each other."

"But this is…" Buffy shakes her head again. "I don't have to hurt them, too. I—I can—"

"You already are," Giles says firmly. She snaps her head up to look at him. "Buffy, do you think seeing you like this—knowing you're in pain—is easy for any of us? You're not as effortless of an actress as you seem to think you are."

Buffy grabs her engagement ring off the windowsill. She turns it in her hand, watching the dark ruby soak up the light.

"At least consider it," Giles tells her.

She slips the ring back on. "It's done."

"What?" asks Giles.

Buffy's vision goes blurry. She blinks. "Nothing. Is it lunchtime?"

"I…" Giles wets his bottom lip. "Yes, if you'd like."

It's somewhere else to be.

 

~*~

 

It's Willow and Tara's turn for Taco Monday. The whole house smells like garlic and barbeque tofu and people are laughing with each other in the dining room when Buffy comes back downstairs.

She looks at all her friends, smiling and smacking each other playfully on the arm and talking about some TV show Buffy is half a season behind on, and it's like something with sharp little teeth is chewing on her ribs. It's like it'll chew through and all her empty is gonna spill out onto the floor and ruin the wood.

Spike rolls his eyes and leans across the table to toast Willow with a beer bottle.

They made it so pretty here. Shiny hardwood that someone mops twice a month and new curtains.

("Fireproof," Spike told her last week. "Only need that lesson once.")

Why did they even miss her?

"Alright, love?" Spike asks, noticing her. He sets his beer down. "Need something?"

"I—" Buffy crinkles the paper in her hands. "I've, um—there's something I need to say."

The chatter dies down. Everyone looks at her besides Dawn, who picks at her fingernails.

Buffy stares back.

Gently, Spike asks, "You want me to do it?"

"I, um… I wrote something," she says. "Sorry."

"You're… sorry you wrote it?" Willow asks.

Buffy looks at Spike. "Maybe I shouldn't."

"You don't have to," he tells her.

Xander raises his hand. "Okay, no one hit me for this, but… you're not pregnant, are ya? 'Cause I've been assured that's not a possibility and I so am not ready for there to be little Spikes running—"

Willow hits him.

"What?" he asks. "I'm just kidding! I mean, a vampire baby, guys? That's campy even for us."

Buffy watches her handwriting go blurry. All the places she scribbled things out and rewrote them and the uber-fancy cursive off to the side that just says: You can do this.

A wrinkled hand covers hers on the page.

She looks up, locking eyes with Giles, whose eyes are so crinkled and kind that she takes her hands away in shock.

He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and clears his throat.

"'Hi, guys,'" he reads, which is so weird in his voice that she almost laughs. "'I'm sorry that I had to write this down. You know me—not… um, big with the written word. But I haven't been so much with the talking lately, either, and I think maybe this is the only way to—to do this.'"

Buffy takes her seat again and hides her face in Spike's chest.

"'I want you—you guys to know that I know you did what you thought was right,'" Giles continues. "'Because you love me. And that's what makes this so—so hard.'"

Spike cards his fingers through her hair.

"'I know you… think I was in hell.'" Giles clears his throat again. "'And that I've been so, um, weird lately because of that. But the truth is—" He pauses. "That it was beautiful there. And it was—it was really warm. And I just knew that you were all safe and nothing would go wrong… ever. E-ever.'"

Someone sniffles.

Buffy lifts her head. There are tears in Giles's eyes; he's cleaning his glasses.

"'Um. And it's hard to be back here sometimes, because things are always—really loud or really quiet, and, um, too soft or too hard,'" Giles finally continues. "'And things that didn't bother me so much before are—are harder now. And I—'" 

Giles looks at Buffy, and the thing on his face is all queasy and self-important like it hasn't been since she was sixteen and she asked him if he thought dying might hurt. 

She never thought he'd pity her again.

He finishes, "'And I miss it. I'm sorry.'"

Tears are streaming down Willow's face. Tara is stroking her arm, her face downturned. Xander and Anya are both in shock.

Dawn is still picking her cuticles.

"Oh my God, Buffy," Willow says eventually. "We're—we're so sorry."

"We didn't know," says Xander. 

Spike is still petting Buffy's hair, his fingers brushing from the nape of her neck all the way down to her shoulder blades. It feels nice. She wants to chop it all off.

Dawn asks, "Was Mom there?"

Buffy looks at her hands. "Yeah."

"Did she ask about me?" Dawn asks.

"Um, it wasn't really…" Buffy shakes her head a little. "We couldn't… talk. It was… I could just feel her."

Dawn says nothing.

"I know she would've," Buffy promises, looking up. "If she could. If—if I could've seen you, or…"

Dawn's chest is rising and falling unsteadily. She asks, "Were you tired?"

Buffy swallows, pressing her lips together while she breathes. "No."

Dawn gets up out of her chair. She just stares for a second, cuticles picked bloody on two of her fingers, and then she comes around the table and wraps her arms around Buffy's neck.

Buffy touches the backs of her ribs.

"The hardest thing in this world," Dawn whispers, "is to live in it."

Buffy's chin digs into her shoulder.

"But you have to," Dawn says wetly. "Buffy, please, I promise I'll be better. I'll be so good as long as you don't go."

Buffy says, "Dawnie—"

"I can do whatever," Dawn tells her, pulling away. "I—I can do all the chores in the whole house, and I'll never skip school again and—and I bet I can make the principal's list if I study hard enough. And I won't go out at night so you don't have to rescue me anymore, and—"

Buffy cups the side of her face. "There is nothing you could do that would make me wanna leave you, okay? That is not what this is."

"But it's worse here, right?" Dawn asks her. "It's not enough. We're not enough."

"You… don't wanna be here?" Willow asks.

Buffy folds her hands in her lap. "Sometimes."

"Oh, Buffy," Willow says. "What can we do? Just—just tell me, okay? Tell me how to fix it, 'cause I can do that! You know, maybe there's a—a spell or something—"

"Willow!" says Tara.

Willow looks at her, wide-eyed.

"Buffy doesn't need a spell," Tara says. "You can't just fix everything the way you like it."

"Th-that's not what I'm saying," Willow argues.

"We just wanna help," says Xander. "Buff, there's gotta be something we can do."

Buffy says, "I—I dunno. I…"

"We'll hang out more," Xander says. "We can have a book club. Or movies! Short videos?"

"Hey," Spike says, raising his voice sharply. "Read the room, you chits. Can't you see you're making it worse?"

Buffy rubs at her arms.

"... We're sorry," says Dawn.

Buffy looks at Spike; her voice sounds flat and distant. "I—I just wanna go to bed."

He nods, gently furrowing his eyebrows. "Alone?"

She takes his hand.

They stand together, his cool thumb rubbing over her knuckles and fabric softener eyes watching her face.

"Um—" Buffy turns towards the rest of the table. "Sorry for ruining dinner. It was really good."

Tara says, "I'll b-box up some leftovers."

Buffy says, "Thanks," and wanders up the stairs.

In their room, Buffy climbs into bed with all her clothes on. Mr. Gordo is on her pillow and she hugs him to her chest, one of his floppy ears tickling her nose.

"Want pajamas, love?" Spike asks.

She shakes her head, so he shuts off the light and closes the door and crawls in with all his clothes on too. Her eyelashes hurt.

His hand brushes tentatively up her arm.

"I don't wanna be touched right now," she says quietly.

Spike rolls onto his back. "You want me to go?"

"No," she says, her voice going even tinier. "Will you talk to me?"

"About what?" Spike asks.

"Anything," she says.

"Mm." Spike shifts a little, getting comfy. "Passions has gone completely off its bird lately—even more so than usual, I mean. See, Sheridan's got amnesia and Kay turned herself into a panther…"

Buffy drifts off to the sound of his voice.

 

~*~

 

"Here ya go!" Willow says cheerfully, setting a mug down in front of Buffy. "Red eye mocha with extra espresso, for all your cardiac arrest needs!"

Buffy smiles faintly. "Thanks."

"I got you whipped cream, too," Willow says, tapping her fingers on her own mug. "I hope that's okay. Do you still like whipped cream?"

Buffy leans down and licks half the whipped cream off the top of her drink. Some of it smears onto her nose.

"I'm really glad we're doing this," Willow tells her. "I've missed you so much."

"Me, too," Buffy says.

"A-and I know I haven't been the best friend lately," Willow continues. "I mean, I've been trying to give you some space and stuff, and I've—there's kind of a lot going on for me, too. But I wanna be there for you, really!"

"I know," says Buffy. "Wil—"

"So if—" Willow cuts off. "Oh, sorry. You go."

Buffy rubs at her nose with a napkin. "I'm still figuring out what I need, I guess. I'm… there's not really an easy answer."

"I—I know that," Willow says. "It's just that… Spike seems to really be helping, and I—I don't get why I can't."

Buffy looks at her ring.

"I mean, even the way he handled the whole reveal and everything, he was so calm," Willow says. "It was almost like he knew already."

Buffy doesn't say anything.

"Oh." Willow asks, "For… for how long?"

"Right after Giles got home," Buffy says.

Willow stays quiet.

"It was… things were really bad, before I told him," Buffy admits. "He—he was trying, maybe too hard, but it just hurt so much. Sometimes it's still…"

"But you guys seem so good now," Willow says. "I—I mean, you're wearing the ring and everything, and you're all cuddly again."

"Sometimes it is," Buffy says. "And then he'll say something, or I'll say something, and it's like… it's like he can't even touch me. Like I go right through him."

Willow says, "Oh, Buffy."

"We haven't had sex," Buffy tells her quietly. "I… sometimes I think it'd help, like maybe I'd—I'd feel something again. But I'd just be using him."

"To be fair, I don't think Spike would really complain in that scenario," Willow says, strained but light-hearted.

Buffy smiles a little. "Probably not."

"I know I'm, you know, with the hypocrite here," Willow says, "but I think it'll just take time, Buffy."

"Guess I have plenty of it," she says.

They're quiet for a minute or so. The Espresso Pump is starting to fill up with the after-work crowd.

"Buffy…" Willow asks. "Are you mad at me?"

She looks up.

"I—I mean, because I was… it's because of me," Willow says. "That you're not… where you were."

"Wil, no," Buffy tells her. "It's not your fault. You didn't know."

"Cause it'd be okay, you know." Willow smiles. "If you were mad at me. I—I mean, I could take it. You could even yell at me and stuff, if it'll make you feel better!"

Buffy says, "I don't wanna do that."

Willow says, "Oh. Right."

"Sorry," says Buffy.

"No, it's okay," Willow tells her. 

Buffy drinks her coffee. The last little bit of whipped cream is too sweet on her tongue. "Um, how are you and Tara doing?"

"Oh!" Willow says, sitting up a little. "We're good. Um, I mean, there's always—you know. But we're good. We're really happy."

Buffy smiles warmly. "Good. You guys are my favorite couple—don't tell Xan and Anya."

Willow smiles back and mimics zipping her lips. "My lips are sealed."

"Okay, but speaking of," Buffy says, "what is up with this wedding? Did I hear her say 'maggots and burlap' the other day?"

"Do you think if I get butch enough before the wedding, they'll let me wear a suit instead?" Willow asks.

Buffy says, "Oh my God, you'd look so cute with short hair."

 

~*~

 

Buffy gets back from patrol a few nights later, tossing her keys on the little table and leaving her boots by the door. She's looking around for literally any of the people who live here when she hears voices from upstairs.

"You don't have to do this, pet," Spike is saying.

Someone—Tara, Buffy thinks—says something too quiet for Buffy to make out.

"I know, and I'm tellin' you I'll talk to Buffy," Spike says. "I'm not putting you out on the street."

Buffy frowns, heading up the stairs with her hand trailing up the banister.

They're in Tara and Willow's bedroom, standing on opposite sides of the bed with an open suitcase between them. Tara is holding a sweater and saying, "It's easier if I just—oh, Buffy."

Buffy glances at the suitcase, then up at them. "What's up?"

"Um, I'm—I'm moving out," Tara explains.

"No, you're not," says Spike.

She ignores him, telling Buffy, "Willow and I br-broke up."

"Oh," says Buffy. "I—I'm sorry. Was it… what happened?"

Spike's eyes are dark. His jaw is popping violently.

"It's, um…" Tara looks down. "Th-thanks for letting me stay here. Um, I really liked living with you guys."

"Good, 'cause you're not going," Spike insists. 

Buffy says, "Spike—"

"Can we talk?" Spike asks her. "Alone."

Buffy glances at Tara.

"Um, I'll—" Tara bites her bottom lip. "I guess I can, um, just go to my friend's for the night? I'll—I'll come back tomorrow and pack."

Spike looks at her, his gaze softening, and says meaningfully, "See you soon, Sunshine."

Tara nods. She zips up her mostly-empty suitcase and carries it with her downstairs.

Once the front door shuts behind her, Buffy tells Spike, "I don't get it. I talked to Wil, like, two days ago and she said everything was great."

Spike snorts. "Yeah, 'cause she made it that way."

"... What?" Buffy asks.

"Apparently Red decided all that fighting about her using too much magic wasn't to her liking," Spike says, his voice hard. "So she did a little spell to make Tara forget it ever happened. Made her a good little girlfriend again."

Buffy says, "No. She wouldn't—"

"You wanna know what the tipping point was?" Spike asks darkly. "She wanted to do a little nip and tuck on you, too—said maybe we should just make you forget all about heaven, since obviously taking responsibility for what she done ain't an option."

(Thank you, said the world.)

"Tara's the one who stopped her," Spike continues. "And this was the thanks she got."

Buffy's throat is dry. She swallows; it just makes it worse.

"I want her out," Spike says.

"What?" Buffy asks.

"Willow," Spike says. "I want her out of our fucking house."

Buffy stares at him in disbelief. "How—how could you even? It's Willow."

"It's Tara," Spike snaps. "It's—" He runs a hand through his hair and turns away. "Look, I haven't… said much about what it was like, while you were—while you were gone. Have my reasons for it. I—I don't want you to…"

He takes a deep breath.

"But without her, I… there aren't words, Buffy." Spike finally looks at her again. "What she's done for me—what she just did for you? And you want to put her out?"

"She's volunteering to go," Buffy says.

"Where do you think she's gonna end up?" Spike snaps. "We're all she has. She doesn't have other family, Buffy."

"Neither does Willow," says Buffy.

Spike says, "Pay her bills, don't they?"

"You know that's not the same," Buffy tells him.

"Think about what she's done," Spike argues. "What she could still do. How can you trust her around you? Around Dawn?"

Buffy's voice goes flat. "I trust you."

Spike's face drops off into nothing. This blank hurt that looks like it crawls right up his nose and burrows somewhere soft—

And then he gets angry.

"Because I've earned it," he says lowly, steady and dangerous, his shoulders coiling even though he's rooted in place. "Do you have any idea what it's like? How bloody careful I am all the time? Never lay a finger on her, do I—keep her safe, put myself in a cage for you, give up who I am for you—"

"That's not fair," she says wetly.

"And it turns out it doesn't bloody matter!" Spike's voice kicks up with a hysteric tilt. "Maybe I should go snack on a co-ed or two tomorrow, yeah, since you're so bloody forgiving."

Buffy says, "Spike."

His eyes are wet and aching and so, so blue, and she wishes she could give him this. She wishes there was a way to say it.

"Willow messed up, okay?" Buffy tells him. "She—she fucked up really badly, I get that, but she's still my best friend. She's been with me through everything and she needs help."

"So does Tara," says Spike.

Buffy shakes her head. "I won't let you do this."

"Neither will I," he says, his gaze level.

"Do I get a vote?" asks Dawn.

They both turn to her: she's standing in the doorway, her mouth trembling and a teddy bear hugged to her chest.

"It's my house too, right?" Dawn asks. "I should get a say."

Buffy says, "Dawn, I—"

"I wanna live with Tara," she says.

("It's a good fight, Buffy," Willow told her all those years ago. When they were so young, when life could've been different. "I want in.")

"No," Buffy says. "This isn't a discussion."

She strides out of the room, her chin tilted high, and neither of them follow her.

 

~*~

 

When Spike finally joins her in bed that night, his voice is soft again. He says, "I can't tell her to go. I can't do it."

"You don't have to," Buffy tells him. "I'll talk to her."

He doesn't try to touch her.

"I'm sorry," she says.

"For what part?" he asks.

"For hurting you." She rolls onto her side to face him. "For… for making you think I could stop…"

His eyes are bright in the dark, just not in the happy way.

"Couldn't you?" he asks softly.

She touches the side of his face. His eyelids flutter shut and she presses their foreheads together.

"I'll love you forever," she whispers. "Even when I'm gone. Even if I have to…"

"Kill me?" he asks.

She kisses him gently, their lips all shaky and tinted with salt, and it aches all the way down to her toes.

"Think that's the first time you've said it," Spike murmurs. "Since…"

She sniffles a little.

"No, love, 's alright," he soothes. "I know. Feels good to hear, but I know."

She touches her lips to his neck, his lonely frozen pulse, and says it again.

 

~*~

 

"You probably could," Buffy tells him in the morning. With the birds chirping and her mouth like a cotton ball, and his pretty face blinking up at her in the low light.

He scrunches up his nose in confusion.

"Eat some people," Buffy clarifies. She pauses. "I mean… don't, please? But if you… if…"

Spike traces his thumb over her wedding ring.

"I couldn't kill you," she confesses, and it makes her nose stuff up and her eyes hurt. "Don't tell Giles. I couldn't do it anymore, okay? So please don't make me."

Spike sits up in bed, the comforter pooling around his waist, and he cups the back of her head and presses a kiss to the tangled crown of her hair.

"Yeah, you could," he says, "but thanks for saying it."

 

~*~

 

Willow is sitting at the kitchen island, a steaming cup of coffee between her palms. Her hair is perfectly styled and there are only bags under her eyes when Buffy looks from the side.

"Um, hey," Buffy says, sitting down next to her. "How ya holding up?"

Willow frowns at her.

"I heard about Tara," Buffy explains. "Um, I… ran into her last night. She was kinda… moving out."

"Oh," says Willow. She looks up from her coffee. "Um, but—her stuff is…?"

"Spike kinda convinced her to hold off," Buffy says. "I think she's gonna come back later."

Willow asks, "Hold off? Why would he—"

Her face goes flat when she gets it.

Buffy quickly says, "But, I mean, obviously I told him no way. You're my Willow, you're not going—"

"God, of course he'd take her side," Willow says, sitting up indignantly. "I knew he wasn't over the whole resurrection thing."

"I—I don't think it's like that," Buffy says nervously. "Wil, you know how close he and Tara are. After this summer—"

"Oh, right, 'cause I was sitting on my ass all summer," Willow says sarcastically. "Riley got the idea for how to keep Dawn here by himself, and a patrolling schedule just randomly appeared out of thin air! Dawn's homework did itself and you dug yourself out of the ground."

Buffy's stool tips back under her shifting weight.

"But Tara held his hand," says Willow. "So I guess she wins the breakup."

Buffy says, "Wil, I'm sorry you feel like you didn't get to grieve, but—"

"No, you don't get it," Willow tells her. "I didn't have to grieve. I made it so none of them did, and has anyone even said thank you?"

Something beeps in the microwave.

Buffy says, "Wil, that doesn't change what you did."

Willow leans away from her. "What I—what're you talking about?"

"This isn't about the resurrection, Willow," Buffy says. "You—I know that you wiped Tara's memory. You… know that's not okay, right? You know that's why Spike is mad at you?"

Willow stares at her. "You're taking his side? You're not seriously saying you want me to leave?"

"No, I'm not. I want you to stay," Buffy promises. She rests her hand on the table between them. "But you did mess up, Wil. You've gotta own that."

Willow says, "Okay, since we're talking healthy relationships, let's look at your track record."

Buffy asks, "What?"

"I mean, does Spike even have a personality outside of being your boyfriend?" Willow asks. "It's pathetic."

"That's not fair," Buffy says, her voice going so hard it shakes.

"All he does is follow you around or whine about you being gone," says Willow. "The only reason we didn't have him on suicide watch all summer is that he's so pussy-whipped he can't even kill himself without your permission."

Buffy is on her feet so fast her stool cracks against the floor.

"I think you need to stop talking," she says. "Now."

Willow holds her gaze for a second, not even flinching, and then she smiles.

"C'mon, Buffy, let's not fight," she says, sliding off her stool and away. "You're right—I'll just go."

Buffy blinks, turning to watch her breeze towards the door. "That's not what I want."

"It's okay," Willow says, and with a flick of her wrist there are two heavy suitcases at her feet. "It's better this way. Wouldn't wanna get between you and the hubby."

She's gone before Buffy can find anything to say, her bags wheeling behind her all by themselves.

The stairs creak under Spike's weight.

Buffy turns to him: his face makes it pretty clear that he heard enough.

"Guess you can call Tara," she says.

Spike asks, "Are you alright?"

"No one talks about you that way," Buffy tells him. "Not even her."

Spike walks the rest of the way down the staircase, coming to stand in front of her. "Not what I asked."

Her lip starts to tremble. "Please just call Tara."

"... Alright," says Spike, and heads into the living room.

He comes back with the cordless phone and touches their foreheads together while it rings.

"Hey, Sunshine, it's me," he says, pulling away when Tara picks up. "Uh, so, way it turned out is— … No, actually. No, Willow's leaving."

He drifts a little towards the dining room.

"Well, Buffy talked to her. … Not exactly. It got a little nasty, but that's not your fault." Spike sighs. "Don't know—maybe Xander will. … It's not your fault. … Look, room's gonna be empty otherwise, innit, and you know it's gonna be tuna sandwiches all the way down without you so you'd better get over here and feed Dawnie a real lunch."

Buffy smiles a little, despite herself. She loves watching the way he loves.

"Yeah, yeah, save it for my funeral," Spike says. "See you soon, Sunshine."

He hangs up the phone, ditching it on the little table in the entryway, and raises an eyebrow at Buffy.

"Wanna go kill something tonight?"

"I love you," says Buffy.

 

~*~

 

Three days later, Buffy and Dawn come home from a movie adventure to something sizzling on the grill in the backyard. Spike is roasting giant mushroom caps, buttery corn on the cob, and one steak over the coals.

"Hey, loves," he says, prodding at a piece of corn with a giant pair of tongs. "Have fun?"

"The movie was lame," says Dawn. "But yeah."

Buffy rolls her eyes. She wraps both arms around him from behind and hooks her chin over his shoulder. "Ooh, with the protein. Mine?"

"If you ask nicely," Spike teases.

She bites his ear.

"Gross," says Dawn.

The back door swings open.

"Oh, you guys are back just in time," Tara says. "Um, Buffy, can I talk to you for a sec?"

Buffy rolls back onto her heels. "Yeah, totally. What's up?"

She follows Tara back inside, hopping up onto a stool in the kitchen while Tara checks something in the oven.

"Um, I just…" Tara trails off for a second. She shuts the oven and leans up against the counter next to it. "We haven't really had a chance to talk about what—what happened."

"Oh," says Buffy. "Hey, you know I—"

"No, it's okay," Tara tells her. "I… I just wanted to say thanks. For, um, letting me stay? I, um, I know you were hoping Willow would."

Buffy frowns and says, "Tara, I… you know you're my friend too, right? And, I mean, I made it really clear to Wil that what she did wasn't okay. It's just—"

"I know," Tara says. She smiles understandingly. "She's kinda your person. And I—I want her to have that. I…" Her smile fades again. "I still l-love her."

"Yeah, I get that," Buffy says quietly. "It's just, you know, sometimes you try to help someone you… and you say you won't give up, but they make you."

"Are you talking about Angel?" Tara asks.

Buffy looks down. "Um, no, actually. Faith."

"Oh," Tara says softly.

"But, I mean, I don't think Willow's—" Buffy looks up again. "It's not gonna come to something like that. I just mean, I get why you didn't stay."

"Have you heard from her?" Tara asks.

Buffy presses her lips together.

"I—I'm sorry," says Tara.

"It's not your fault," Buffy promises. "Very much of the me and her. Xander says she's safe."

Tara nods—hesitantly once, then more resolutely. She slips on an oven mitt and pulls a tray of roasted broccoli out of the oven.

"Hey," Buffy says, smiling warmly when Tara glances over at her. "One more thing?"

Tara looks at her expectantly.

Buffy walks around the island and pulls her into a hug, squeezing tightly with her eyes slipping shut.

"Thank you," she whispers. "Thank you for him."

"Oh," Tara says breathlessly. "You're—you're welcome."

Buffy lets her go, ducking her head a little and picking at the sleeve of her jacket. "Um, I'm gonna go see how the grill is going. I feel like those two shouldn't be unsupervised near that much fire for that long."

Tara laughs a little. "Probably not."

Buffy heads for the door.

"Um, Buffy?" Tara calls.

Buffy lingers with her hand hovering over the doorknob.

"We're… all just taking care of each other," Tara tells her. "That's kinda how it works."

Buffy smiles softly and says, "Yeah."

 

~*~

 

"Yeah, I'll have a whiskey double, neat," Spike is telling the bartender. "And a Sex on the Beach for the lady."

Buffy rolls her eyes at him.

"What?" he asks innocently. "Wanna trade?"

She leans her head against his bicep. "I miss the ocean."

"Nothing stopping us," Spike points out. "Take the drinks and run."

"I missed the Bronze, too," Buffy says. She thanks the bartender when he hands her drink over and swivels on her stool, facing the crowd.

"Is it like you remembered?" Spike asks, tucking her against his chest.

Buffy says, "It's loud."

He hums.

"The band's cool," she says.

"Yeah, they're alright," Spike agrees.

"Snob," Buffy accuses.

Spike throws back half his drink.

Buffy catches her straw between her teeth and sips up a mouthful of drink. It tastes tart and sweet and a little like falling in love with him, burning on the way down.

He kisses the tip of her ear, nose brushing through her hair, and she can tell from the curve of his mouth that he's smiling mischievously. "Wanna dance, pet?"

"With the hasty," Buffy says. "Lemme finish my drink."

"Could multitask," Spike suggests, nipping playfully at her cartilage.

She stuffs her orange slice in his mouth.

He bites into it, pouting at her around the peel.

Buffy slurps her drink innocently.

It's nice to be back here, though. Even with the loud. She watches the crowd, the band up on stage (thinks nostalgically about Oz), at all these people who came here just to feel a little alive.

She leans further into Spike's touch. He nuzzles the side of her face, keeping his teeth to himself.

Her drink is really good. She's almost finished with it and thinking about getting Spike to buy her another one when all of a sudden she sits up totally straight, knocking her shoulder against Spike's chin.

"Oi!" he complains. "What—"

"Willow," Buffy says, feeling him shift to follow her gaze.

"Hell," he says. "Who's that with her?"

Buffy's brain is busy rebooting. She says, "Amy."

"... The rat?" asks Spike.

"Formerly known as," says Buffy. "God, I can't believe she did it."

Willow and Amy walk up to one of the pool tables. A little shower of sparks leaves Amy's fingertips and the balls rerack themselves—to the annoyance of the people who were in the middle of a game. 

"You wanna talk to her?" Spike asks quietly.

Buffy's glass is all slippery with condensation. She ditches it on the counter and walks over to the pool table, weaving politely through the crowd. The lack of tinglies on her neck tells her that Spike isn't following.

"Um, hey," she says, standing there awkwardly when Willow doesn't notice her right away.

Willow looks up, her pool stick still propped between two fingers.

"Oh," she says. "Hi."

"Hey, Buffy," Amy says.

Buffy says, "Um, hey. How ya been?"

"Rat," says Amy. "You?"

"Dead," says Buffy.

They both shrug in acknowledgement.

"It's good to see you, Wil," Buffy says. "Um, I wanted to call, but…"

Xander said he wasn't allowed to give out the number.

"Yeah," says Willow. "I just needed some 'me' time, yanno? Getting used to the new place and stuff."

"That's cool. I mean, that's great. Where are you?" Buffy asks.

"Around," says Willow.

Buffy rubs at her arm. "Listen, I'm really sorry about—"

"Oh my god," says Amy. "Isn't that the crazy guy who attacked us on parent-teacher night? Over there at the bar."

Buffy glances up at the ceiling.

"That's Buffy's husband," Willow says brightly. "He's always around."

"He's not always—" Buffy cuts off, lowering her voice. "Wil, we live together."

"You live at the Bronze?" Willow asks innocently.

Buffy grits her teeth. "We were having date night. But it's not like I knew you'd—"

"It's okay, I get it," Willow tells her. "Sorry for crashing your party."

"I literally came over here to talk to you," Buffy tells her. "Alone. Because I care about you. Wil, I hate how we left things."

"Yeah," Willow says, blinking. "Me, too."

Buffy says, "So let's talk about it. I—I mean, we can grab a drink, or… if you wanna go somewhere quieter."

"Sorry, I'm just still confused," Amy cuts in. "You're married? To a vampire? But not the one you were dating in high school?"

"Legally married," says Buffy. "And he's on a diet."

Amy says, "Some diet," her eyes dragging up Spike's body appreciatively. He nods at them from across the crowd.

Buffy narrows her eyes; he turns back to the bar.

There's a little round of applause as the band finishes their song and goes into the next one.

Buffy looks at Willow, who's looking at Spike like she wants to catch him on fire.

Hopefully not in the literal sense.

"Hey," Buffy tells her. "So, I—how've you been?"

"Oh, gee, I've been great!" Willow says. "'Cause, you know, getting dumped and thrown out of my house by my best friend has been really good for my health."

Buffy blinks at her. "I didn't throw you out—you said way shitty things about my boyfriend and then you left."

"You've got a boyfriend and a husband?" Amy asks. "Man, I was a rat for a long time."

"Shut up, Amy," Buffy says impatiently.

"Oh, yeah, take it out on everyone else," says Willow. "Classic Buffy."

Buffy feels her throat start to close up. She asks, "Wil, what's happening? I came over here to make up. I—"

"Oh, you did? Sorry, I think I must've missed the apology part," Willow says.

Buffy stares at her. "Are you sorry?"

Willow stares back.

"I guess that's it, then," Buffy says.

Willow says, "Yeah, I guess."

Buffy gets to the far side of the pool table before she turns around.

"You have no idea how hard I fought for you," she says. "The things I said… how much I hurt him."

Willow's face falters for half a second. She adjusts her grip on the pool stick and says, "Yeah, well, he's still the one you're going home to."

Buffy doesn't look back again.

Spike rubs a hand up and down her back when she climbs onto her abandoned stool and worms her way under his arm.

"Can we get out of here?" she asks quietly.

Spike tosses a couple bills onto the bar and keeps his hand on her lower back as they make their way to the exit. The song that's playing is really good.

Buffy scans the alley for any trouble, but it seems clear for now. She wraps an arm around his middle and says, "I don't wanna go home. Just, you know, majorly not feeling the love in there."

Spike hums. "Know somewhere we could go with nothin' but friendly faces."

 

~*~

 

"Okay, did your sense of humor fry at the same time the chip did?" Buffy asks, glaring moodily at the neon sign that says Willy's Place right over their heads like evil mistletoe.

"C'mon, Slayer, it'll be fun," Spike argues, grinning mischievously at her. She rolls her eyes and lets him lead her into the bar. "Either everyone behaves themselves and we have a nice time, or someone tries something cute and we have a really nice time."

Buffy tries to keep up the angry face, but his stupid smile is too cute.

"Ugh, fine," she says, hopping up onto a wobbly (and kinda sticky) barstool. "Violence does make me feel better."

"Don't I know it," says Spike. He kisses the top of her head.

From down the bar, a demon guy with like seven eyes complains, "Aw, Spike, c'mon! You can't bring the Slayer here!"

"Yeah!" says another demon. "You know romance gives me hives."

"Also, she kills us," the first demon adds.

Buffy says, "It's my night off."

So Many Eyes demon blinks at her so many times. "So?"

"So it's her night off, you nit," says Spike.

"Just don't, like, literally eat anybody in front of me and we're good," Buffy adds.

The two demons look at each other. A general murmur runs through the crowd.

So Many Eyes offers, "Buy you a drink?"

Buffy smiles brightly and says, "Ooh, yes please."

 

~*~

 

"Okay, so—so—" Buffy slaps her hand on the table, trying to catch her breath. "And then he says, 'I thought you brought the axe!'"

"No one brought the axe?" asks Gorlox.

Spike is giggling hysterically, laughing so hard he's practically falling into Buffy's lap. "No one brought the axe!"

"Oh my Wellexarbet, what did you do?" asks Frank.

"We—" Buffy hiccups with laughter and smacks Spike on the chest. "You tell it."

"No, no, baby, you tell it better."

Buffy takes another swig from the whiskey bottle they stole from behind the bar (sorry bartender). "Bleugh. Okay, okay. So it's just the two of us and this giant tree, right, and it's all, 'Garrr, no ordinary weapon can fell me!' And so I—I look at Spike and say—" She wheezes. "'Hey, you want a cigarette?' And he's all—"

"'Yeah, I could go for a cigarette,'" Spike supplies.

"So he just stands there and lights one up! Right in front of the tree!" Buffy says. She cups a hand over her mouth and snorts with laughter. "And he takes a drag and just— flick! Tosses the thing right into the tree's mouth."

Spike flashes a grin. "Went up like tinder."

"He should've waited for the—" Buffy snickers. "Rainy season."

Their whole table howls with laughter.

"Wait wait wait!" Buffy says. "That's not the best part!"

"Good God, Giles," says Spike. 

Frank asks, "Who's Guy-les?"

"He's that grumpy old librarian guy I'm with sometimes," Buffy says. "And like three minutes after the tree went down, he comes running up in a big British huff like, 'Bah, Buffy! You're so irresponsible!'"

"Wavin' the axe around, 'bout to poke an eye out," Spike adds.

"'How could you forget the axe?'" Buffy says, doing her Giles impression. "'It's the only way to—'" She mimics looking around the room. "'Where's the tree?'"

"'Where's the tree!'" Gorlox repeats, thumping Frank on the back while they both laugh.

Frank wipes tears from three of his eyes. "That's priceless."

Buffy leans tipsily into Spike's side and says, "Literally. No one pays me!"

"Good thing you're drinking for free!" says Frank.

Buffy toasts him with the bottle.

"Oh, hey!" someone new calls from near the door. "Spike?"

Spike and Buffy turn towards the sound of the voice: it's a smiling demon with floppy ears and a major flab factor going on.

"Clem!" Spike says, waving the demon over. "Long time, no see, mate."

Clem bypasses the bar to come straight to their table and give Spike a hug. "How ya been, buddy?" He pulls away and looks at Buffy. "Oh. My. God. Is this your wife?"

Buffy does a little finger wave. "Hi, I'm Buffy."

"Buffy! It's so good to finally meet you!" Clem says, and squishes her in a hug too. "You're not nearly as hideous as Spike made you out to be."

Buffy raises an eyebrow at Spike over Clem's shoulder.

He hides behind the whiskey bottle.

"Um, thanks?" she says.

"I mean, you hardly even notice the skin thing," Clem continues. "And the hair. What shampoo do you use?"

Buffy says, "Um, it's—"

"Clem!" One of the sketchier demons sitting in the back room pokes her head around the curtain. "Hurry it up, you blabbermouth."

"I'm coming, sheesh!" Clem shouts back. He looks at Spike. "Are you here for the game?"

"Nah," says Spike. "It's date night."

Buffy perks up. "What game?"

"Oh, it's poker night," Clem tells her. "Spike used to come all the time over the summer—" He winks at her. "Guess he's got better things to do now."

Buffy's stomach twinges a little.

"Best of luck, mate," Spike says. He leans over and kisses Buffy's temple.

Buffy says, "You should play."

He furrows his eyebrows at her. "Really?"

"Yeah," Buffy tells him, flashing a smile. "I'll watch you. It'll be fun."

Spike quirks his lips at her. "'F you insist."

"Yup," Buffy says. She hops to her feet, grabs his shoulder when she wobbles, and then hauls him out of his chair. "I'm of the 'sisting."

"Alright, alright." Spike follows after her into the back room. "I like my arms in their sockets, woman."

Buffy shoves him down into the last empty chair and plops into his lap.

"Hi!" she tells the group of demons staring at her. "Cards, please!"

"Uh, you can't both play," says one of the demons.

Buffy says, "Oh, don't worry, poker is stupid."

The demon stares blankly at her.

"She's here to watch," says Spike. He wraps an arm around her waist, scrunching his fingers up in the fabric of her shirt. "Call 'er my good luck charm."

Buffy leans forward and snatches the deck of cards out of Clem's hands. "Plus, I can shuffle."

"... Can you?" asks another demon.

"Guys, let's be real here," Buffy says innocently. "I'm really drunk, and I don't know anything about poker. What am I gonna do?"

Spike, who knows only one of those things is true, bites lightly at her shoulder.

"Shh!" she says, smacking his wrist.

The poker gang looks unconvinced.

"Plus, I could totally beat you guys up," says Buffy. "Ooh, where's my drink?"

Spike holds the bottle out in his other hand.

Buffy takes a sip, scrunches up her face, and then bridges the deck of cards. "Now, how many does everyone get again?"

 

~*~

 

"You play for kittens?"

 

~*~

 

"Okay, that's it!" says Poker Demon Number Three, slamming her cards down on the table. "Fess up!"

Buffy blinks innocently, swaying from her perch a little. "Who, me?"

"We know you're cheating," Poker Demon Number Three says. 

"Like hell!" Spike says defensively. "You've got x-ray vision."

"Well, I'm not using it," says Number Three.

Clem gestures frantically and says, "Guys, just calm down, okay? No one's cheating."

A card falls out of his skin flaps.

"Well, that could've been there for days," he says defensively.

"The Slayer is palming cards!" Number Three accuses.

Poker Demon Number Two says, "I bet she's stacking the deck!"

"Oh my God, you guys are such idiots," Buffy says, snorting judgmentally. "I'm just showing Spike everyone's hands when I deal them out."

The table gets weirdly quiet.

Spike says, "Uh… Buffy?"

Buffy grabs the basket of kittens and runs.

 

~*~

 

They go three blocks at full speed, the kittens chirping at them from inside the little basket where Buffy clutches it to her chest, before they finally realize no one's chasing after them.

Buffy whoops with laughter, kicking her legs out when Spike wraps his arms around her and spins her around.

"Spike!" she squeaks. "Honey, the kitties!"

Her feet touch the sidewalk again. Spike lifts up the lid on the basket and five tiny noses stick up into the night air.

"Look alright to me," he says. "Tough little buggers. Who's a tasty little snack? You are."

Buffy closes the lid with a glare.

"I'm kidding," Spike says. "Like I'd eat a kitten."

"You'd totally eat a kitten," Buffy says. She switches the basket to her other hand so she can lace their fingers together while they walk.

"I'd eat your kitten," Spike says, licking his teeth.

Buffy rolls her eyes fondly.

There aren't that many people out anymore. She's got no idea what time it is; the moon's pretty high in the sky.

"Do you…" Spike starts, then cuts off. 

She waits.

"If it's somethin' I'm doing," he says. "Or… not doing."

Buffy's chest goes tight.

Spike says, "It's alright, if you never… but you could tell me."

"I—I don't know," she says.

"It's okay," he tells her.

Buffy wraps her fingers around the heavy crystal on her left wrist. It's the same temperature his hand was.

She says, "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," he says. "It's—"

"I wanna be close to you," she says wetly.

"You are," Spike says gently. "I felt you tonight. Didn't you feel it?"

Buffy turns to him, right there in the middle of the street. "What if it's not how we remember it. What if I'm…?"

Spike takes a step closer. His hand cups the side of her face, knuckles brushing through her hair, and his thumb strokes her cheek. 

"I love you," he says.

Buffy's voice cracks. "I love you, too."

Spike smiles, his eyes glittering under the abandoned green traffic light (like mistletoe), and asks, "What else is there?"

"Not much," she whispers, and pushes onto her toes.

He kisses her sweetly, and takes off giggling with her when a car blares its horn at them, and it feels good to run. It feels good to shush him with aching feet when they unlock the front door, and it feels good to see her sister's sleeping face lit up by the TV in the living room.

Buffy carries Dawn to bed. She tucks her in, smoothing the hair away from her face, and there's this, too.

It makes her eyes sting a little.

Downstairs, Spike is coaxing Tara awake.

"Mm," she mutters, rolling out a crick in her neck. "Is… morning?"

"Nah," Spike says quietly. "Late, though. Off to bed, Sunshine."

Tara asks, "How was date night?"

"Was fun," Spike answers. "Thanks for watching Nibblet."

"Mhm." Tara switches off the TV. "What'd you guys do?"

Buffy says, "Nothing," at the same time Spike says, "Stole a bunch of kittens."

Tara squints at them.

"He's kidding," Buffy says.

A muffled noise comes from the basket.

"What's that?" asks Tara.

"A basket," says Buffy.

Tara says, "Right. Is… the basket empty?"

Buffy says, "Totally."

"Meow," says the basket.

Tara looks at Buffy, then at the basket. Then at Buffy again.

"Goodnight, guys," she says, and heads up the stairs.

Yeah, fair.

Spike hooks his chin over Buffy's shoulder and asks, "So… can we keep 'em?"

 

~*~

 

"I have questions, comments, and concerns," says Xander.

Buffy says, "We're open to feedback."

"Comment," says Xander. "There are kittens in the bathroom."

"Uh huh," says Buffy.

"Question," Xander says. "Why are there kittens in the bathroom?"

Spike says, "Internet said to keep 'em in a smaller room."

"Cool," Xander says. "Great. Love it. Concern?"

"Sure," says Spike.

"Why are there kittens in the bathroom?" Xander asks.

Buffy looks at Spike.

Spike looks at Buffy.

"Wanna help name them?" Buffy asks Xander.

Xander says, "Dibs on the chunky one."

 

~*~

 

"Thanks for meeting me here," Buffy says, picking at the sleeves of her shirt as Tara sits back down with her coffee. "It's just, um, with the crowded, at the house."

"Of course, sweetie," Tara says. 

Buffy drags her teeth over her bottom lip. "It's just, um, I'm kinda hoping this can stay between us?"

"Sure," Tara says. She fiddles with her mug, spinning it by the handle. "B-but, if this is about the thing I'm helping Spike with, I promise it's not anything bad, but I really can't tell you."

Huh, that's still happening?

"It's not that," Buffy tells her. "I trust you guys."

Tara smiles. "Oh. Good."

"Um, it's… it's kind of a magic thing," Buffy says. "Or, I'm hoping it is?"

Tara frowns a little with curiosity. "Oh?"

Buffy slips her bracelet off her wrist and lays it on the table between them. "Um, you know how Spike and I both have these?"

"Yeah," Tara says. "It's really cute."

"Um, thanks. It's just that, um—" Buffy looks down. "They haven't really been working since, um, I got back."

"... Working?" Tara asks.

Buffy glances at her. "You know, with the, um, love and connection and stuff."

Tara's frown deepens. She hovers her hand over the bracelet and asks, "Can I?"

"Um, sure," says Buffy.

Tara picks up the bracelet, tracing her fingers over the milky pink stone.

"Um… who gave you these?" she asks.

"A lady who used to own the Magic Box," Buffy explains. "Um, a little before we met you?"

"And she said they were for…?"

"Well, I was—I was under that—"

Buffy hesitates.

"It's okay," Tara says. "You can say it."

"That spell Willow did?" Buffy says guiltily. "That made me and Spike think we wanted to get married. And I stopped at the magic shop to get stuff for Giles, and I was—I was kinda thinking our first time would be that night, you know, with the true love and stuff, but I was also kinda wigging 'cause the only other time I'd had sex…"

"Not so great?" Tara guesses.

Buffy smiles ruefully. "Of the apocalypse."

Tara smiles a little too.

"So, um, I asked the lady if she had anything that would, um, help," Buffy continues. "And she made me these and said to, um—to think about Spike and how he made me feel. And I did, and it was—" She swallows thickly. "It was really nice. I mean, we didn't end up—the spell broke. But it made me feel better."

Tara turns the bracelet in her hands and doesn't say anything.

"And, you know, we kept them even after," Buffy says. "And we put them back on eventually, but I haven't… I feel like it's not working? Because I'm still…"

"Scared?" Tara asks softly.

Buffy laughs awkwardly and wipes the back of her hand over her eyes. "Pretty lame, huh?"

"I was gonna say normal," Tara tells her.

Buffy blinks at her.

"Buffy, um—" Tara hesitates a little. "Not to be rude, but do you know anything about crystals?"

Buffy looks down, tugging on a loose thread on her sweater. "Um, Giles was supposed to teach me, but…"

"That's okay," Tara says. "Your bracelet is a rose quartz, and—and the lady was right—they're really good for increasing love and compassion and stuff like that."

Buffy nods, her throat bobbing.

"But the thing is that unless you use crystals you chose yourself, that you built a connection with?" Tara explains. "The effect isn't gonna be super strong or anything. And, um, you're supposed to cleanse and charge them, because just existing in the world, out of the earth where they came from, kinda gets them out of whack over time."

Buffy's hands go quiet. She looks up again, this time to meet Tara's eyes.

"So, um, I don't think it's that weird that you haven't really been feeling anything from it, especially after—after everything you've been through?" Tara tells her gently. "Buffy, it's… healing takes time. Trusting someone t-takes time."

"But it's Spike," Buffy says wetly.

"And he l-loves you." Tara puts the bracelet on the table and covers Buffy's hands with hers. "I—I mean, has he…?"

"No," Buffy says quickly. "Um, he's asked a couple of times, but he's—he never tried to make me feel bad or anything."

Tara's smile is bittersweet. "So… maybe try to trust that, first?"

"... Okay," Buffy says quietly. "Thanks."

"I could teach you how to charge the crystals, though," Tara offers. "It might help a little."

Buffy traces a finger over the quartz, feeling the little bumpies wobble under her touch, and admits, "Help would be good."

 

~*~

 

The week before Thanksgiving, Buffy is on her way back from Shady Hill from an early patrol, mentally putting together a grocery list (turkey, cat food, fresh cranberries for Spike the snob) when she hears a scream from an alley across the street.

Buffy's head whips over: a vampire has two women cornered near a dumpster. She moves to run straight for them, but the light changes and a bunch of cars start speeding through the intersection and she has to dodge the traffic.

Which turns out to be fine, because when the vampire grabs the first lady from behind and moves to bite her, the second lady clobbers him over the head with her purse so hard that he shouts with surprise—and then the first lady donkey-kicks him in the balls. While he's hunched over in pain, the second lady shoves him into the open dumpster.

By the time Buffy is across the street with a stake out, the first lady is going for the eyes with her keys and the vamp is making with the shameful retreat.

"Um, hi there," Buffy says, watching the two old ladies dust off their clothes. "Are… you guys okay?"

"Hardly," one of the ladies—with short, dark hair—says with a sniff. "I just had this manicure done, and now look!"

She shows Buffy her broken nail.

"Um, I'm sorry," Buffy says. "But, with the… mugging?"

"Oh, we're fine, dear," says the other lady, who fluffs up her perm. "We taught that young man some manners."

Buffy smiles lopsidedly. "Um, yeah. I saw that."

"Oh, but you should be careful, sweetie," the first lady tells her. "It's dangerous to walk alone this time of night. Do you want us to walk you home?"

There's a weird, warm fluttering in Buffy's chest. "Um, I'll be okay. This is kinda weird, but do you guys take classes at the Y?"

"We do!" the first lady says with surprise.

Buffy's smile widens. She holds up her left hand and says, "I'm Spike's wife."

"Oh my goodness!" says the second lady. "You're Buffy?"

"That's me," she answers.

"Oh, it's so good to meet you!" the first lady says. "I'm Barbara."

"And I'm Carol," the other lady says.

Buffy says, "It's nice to meet you guys. Spike really loves teaching your class."

Carol smiles. "We love learning from him. He's a sweet young man."

"We were so happy to hear you came home," Barbara tells her. "Janet was just saying to me last month, 'Spike seems so much happier lately. I bet you his wife is back.'"

"And here you are!" Carol says.

Buffy says, "Um, thank you. I—it means a lot. I think, um—I think you guys, I mean, the class? I think that was really important for him, while I was gone."

"I hope that's true," Carol says. "We're very lucky to have him. He's made a big difference in the community."

Buffy smiles wistfully. "I can tell."

"Well, we better toddle along home," Carol says. "Ready, Barb?"

Barbara links her arm through Carol's as the three of them make their way back out of the alley.

"It was really nice meeting you guys," Buffy tells them.

"Oh, likewise, sweetie," Barbara says. "We hope to see you around."

Buffy watches them turn the opposite way down the street, something all buzzy and soft zipping around her stomach, and says softly, "I'll be here."

 

~*~

 

Spike is curled up in the kitten room (formerly known as the sitting room) with a cat in his lap when Buffy gets home. He's holding a book like eight inches from his face and squinting in the low light.

"I'm gonna buy you glasses for Christmas," Buffy threatens, scooping PlayStation into her arms and stealing her seat.

Spike looks at her all offended. "You wouldn't."

"Would too," she says. She winces when PlayStation digs her little claws into her thigh.

Spike cards his fingers through her hair. "How was patrol?"

"Mm, pretty boring," says Buffy. She scritches the chunky kitty behind her ears, watching with a smile on her face as Boots and Henrietta chase each other around the room. "I met two of your lady-friends though."

Spike hums questioningly.

"Barbara and Carol?" Buffy says. "They beat up a vamp and took his lunch money."

"Ha," Spike says fondly. "Good for them."

"I'm a little upset," Buffy teases. "I'm supposed to have the market cornered here."

Spike kisses the top of her head. "Wish we could get 'em stakes and whatnot. Bet we'd cut your workload by a good twenty percent—thin the fledges, at least."

"Mm, we could make flyers and hand them out at PTA meetings," Buffy says. She nuzzles her face into the crook of his neck. "Uncle Sam needs you to fight vampires."

"Or Smokey the Bear," says Spike. "Only you can prevent vampire attacks."

"If you're cold, they're colder?" Buffy jokes.

Spike kisses the top of her head and murmurs, "Bring them inside this winter."

"Mm, that's just you," Buffy says, smiling when she tilts her face up for a kiss.

Spike hums back, kissing her soft and slow. She sighs sleepily and droops in his arms.

"Tired, love?" he asks.

"Comfy," she says.

PlayStation tries to claw her way up Buffy's torso.

"Ow," she laughs.

Spike makes a clucking noise and scoops up the cat, draping her on the back of the armchair instead. She meows indignantly and tries to climb down Buffy's hair.

"Oh my God," says Buffy. "Oh my— ouch."

"C'mon, biscuit, let Mum rest, yeah?" Spike coos, gently setting the kitten on the ground. "Go play with your siblings, there's a good girl."

Buffy wriggles until she's extra cozy in Spike's lap again and shuts her eyes. "You're a good cat dad."

"Am I?" he asks softly.

"Mhm." Buffy smiles against his shoulder. "The best. And best boyfriend."

"Comes with a plaque, does it?" Spike asks warmly.

Buffy frowns. "Vampire dentist."

"What's that?"

She prods him drowsily in the ribs. "Brush your teeth."

"Uh huh," says Spike. "Wanna go to bed, love?"

"Here's good," she says. There's the sound of scampering, and one of the kittens (probably Rupert) crashing into the wall. "Boyfriend pillow."

"Happy to be of service," says Spike. The pages of his book rustle when he flips it back open.

Buffy makes a sleepy noise.

"Buffy?" he asks quietly. She hums at him again. "Love you."

"Love," Buffy mumbles, and in that little moment right before sleep happens, all heavy and warm even without a blanket like she almost forgot she could feel, it's almost easy.

 

~*~

 

Buffy jolts awake so suddenly that Spike curses, "Bloody hell!" and wakes up too.

"Holy water," she says.

"What?" asks Spike.

"Put holy water in the pepper spray," Buffy tells him. "For your ladies."

Spike asks, "Can I marry you twice?"

 

~*~

 

Buffy is making herself a leftover turkey sandwich when Spike comes downstairs with his gym bag slung over one shoulder.

"Off to the salt mines, pet," he says, giving her a little wave. "See you tonight."

He's wearing lime green short-shorts and baby pink sweatbands on his forehead and upper arms. He looks so stupid that Buffy basically just wants to kiss him forever.

"Can I come?" she asks.

A surprised grin spreads across his dopey face. "You want to?"

"Yeah." Buffy sticks the turkey back in the fridge. "Let me get changed."

Spike waits for her while she dresses in workout clothes. They cut through Restfield to get to the Y faster, but most of the class is already there by the time they show up anyway; Buffy waves to Barbara and Carol and takes a spot next to Janet in the back.

The advanced class is a lot faster paced than the intermediate one Buffy watched last month. Spike does a really good job of teaching moves that work for people who don't have super strength, but it's not like he goes super easy on them, either. 

Which is good, because the other half of Sunnydale won't.

Halfway through the class, Spike takes a pause in the teaching to let everyone grab water and catch their breath. Buffy is still guzzling her water bottle when he announces, "Alright, who wants to volunteer for the demonstration today? How about the pretty blonde in the back?"

Buffy leans over and tells Janet, "I think he's talking to you."

Janet shoos her up front.

Buffy does a little half-jog around the crowd and hops into place opposite Spike.

"Hi," she says brightly. "You think I'm pretty?"

Spike smirks at her. "Wanna dance, pet?"

"Are you sure you want me to embarrass you in front of all these nice people?" Buffy asks.

"Wouldn't have it any other way, baby," Spike tells her.

Buffy tugs off her engagement ring and sets it on the floor out of the way.

"Quick note everyone," Spike says, addressing the class. "Me and Buffy are professionals, so don't be—"

Buffy socks him in the stomach and sweeps his legs, sending him crashing to the floor.

"Oi," says Spike, rubbing at the back of his head.

"What?" Buffy asks innocently, her hands clasped behind her back. "You said no fair fights."

A ripple of laughter goes through the room.

Spike flips himself back onto his feet, white sneakers squeaking against the laminated floors, and when he lands it's in a predator's crouch. No more Mr. Nice Vampire.

"That's how you want it, then?" he asks, raising a scarred eyebrow, and Buffy grins.

"Give it to me," she says.

Spike lunges.

Buffy steps neatly to the side and goes for the legs again, which doesn't work twice—Spike grabs her by the ankle and tugs; she feels her feet slipping from under her and turns the momentum into a backflip, putting distance between them and yanking her foot free.

"C'mon, Goldilocks," Spike taunts. "You can do better than that."

Buffy cracks her neck. "Just warming up."

They circle each other for a moment, the tension crackling.

Spike, like always, gets impatient first. He closes the distance between them with a flash of movement, throwing a series of punches that Buffy mostly blocks—but she's losing ground towards the wall. She feigns a stumble, which makes him cocky, and then rabbit-punches him on the nose.

Spike yelps in irritation, which gives her the opening she needs to pin him up against the wall by the back of his neck.

Their bodies are pressed close together, Buffy's chest brushing against his shoulders when she breathes out. She slides her other hand up his spine and over to the left.

He shudders—with relief or anticipation.

Buffy pushes onto her toes and asks sweetly in his ear, "Two outta three?"

She takes a quick step back the second before he breaks out of her hold and comes in hot again.

The first round was almost playful—a little flashy, kinda, for the people watching. But this is all business, now (or all pleasure). His punches hurt when they land, but she knows hers do too.

They cat-and-mouse around the room, Spike gently throwing civilians in Buffy's way when she's on the offensive. She grabs one woman's metal water bottle with a cheerful, "Can I borrow this?" and uses it like a club for two brutal swings before he catches her by the wrist.

"Do we really need weapons for this?" he teases, and bends her wrist back until the bottle cracks against the ground.

Buffy wrenches her hand free and goes for another swing, but all at once he's got her by the other wrist with a thumb digging lightly into the hollow of her throat.

She gasps; he wraps around her from behind, trapping her against him with his cool chest solid against her back and her next breath choking shallowly.

He's hard. Heat pools in her belly and she has to swallow around the way her mouth waters.

Spike presses a tender kiss to her jugular.

The moment he lifts his head, she cracks hers backwards and feels her skull connect with his teeth.

Spike curses and shoves her away from him so hard that she almost stumbles when she whips around to face him.

He grins ferally at her, showing off a mouthful of bloody teeth, and she realizes something when the hairs on the back of her neck finally go up: that under the gentle hands, the cups of tea when her stomach hurts and the pretty, pretty eyes, the monster that tried to kill her when they met is still in there.

And something loosens in her chest.

Maybe the girl he first saw dancing isn't gone either.

"You're looking a little rough, Spikey," Buffy tells him. "You sure you wanna go to three?"

Spike thumbs the blood off his split lip and licks it clean. "Could go all night with you, pet."

"Prove it," she taunts, and ducks his next swing. "By the way—" She lands a punch to his jaw. "What's with the outfit?" 

She takes a left hook to the cheek and blocks the follow-up swing.

"I mean, seriously," she asks, "who dressed you in that and why do they hate you?"

Spike pulls up short, looking genuinely insulted. "This is what people wear to workout!"

"You look like a watermelon, honey," says Buffy, then lands a spinning kick that knocks him off balance. "Richard Simmons thinks you look tacky."

Spike stumbles backwards, his blocks turning sloppier as she throws out hit after hit, until in a desperate move he grabs at her and takes them both tumbling to the floor.

She smacks her elbow hard against the glossy fake wood, hissing with pain, and jams a knee into his hip to get him off her.

They grapple—Spike reaches for the dropped water bottle and Buffy scratches her nails down his arm; he changes tactics and fists a hand in her hair with a snarl. She sinks her teeth into his forearm to get him to drop her.

The next second, she's got him on his back with his hips pinned underneath her. He bucks against the hold, wrists straining against her grip, but she's stronger.

Buffy rests a flat palm over his heart.

Spike melts out of the fight all at once, all slack and noodly in her hands, and he's making major dope eyes when he tells her, "You like the outfit."

Buffy smiles back at him. "Uh huh."

"Knew you would," he says, and moves to sit up.

"Oh, honey, wait a sec," Buffy says. She grabs his broken nose with one hand and says. "On the count of three, okay? One, two—"

She resets it.

"Bitch," he mutters. "You always do it on two."

"Baby," she says, and helps him get to his feet.

Spike says, "Yeah, well—"

He cuts off when they both come face to face with the crowd of middle-aged moms staring at them.

Right. Self-defense class. With the… people.

"... Alright then," Spike says, raising his voice and clearing his throat. "What've we learned?"

"Nothing any of us are gonna say out loud, honey," says Janet from the back row.

"Terrific," says Spike. "Class dismissed."

 

~*~

 

"Is it weird that I missed it?" Buffy asks quietly. They're sitting on the porch swing under a blanket; she has an ice pack held against her ribs.

Spike hums at her from under a bag of frozen peas.

"Fighting," she says. "I mean, I didn't wanna hurt you, but I also… kinda did."

Spike lifts the peas off his face to look at her. "'S how I felt, too."

Buffy smiles at him. "We're really fucked up, huh?"

"Yeah," Spike says, pressing his bruised mouth to hers. "Get you another drink?"

"Ooh, yes please," she says, wiggling her fingers at him when he takes her wine glass. 

As soon as his cute butt is out of sight, Buffy hops to her feet and runs around to the back of the house, where she uses her trusty tree-to-bedroom window pipeline to sneak into their room.

She winces a little getting the sports bra off; her ribs are actually pretty bruisey. Thank God Tara and Dawn are out most of the night.

Buffy's favorite lingerie set was dark plum, with a full bustier and little ribbons down the sides and a matching garter. It was in the getaway bag she packed when they went on the run for Glory. 

Maybe it's still out there in the desert. 

The set she puts on has been tucked safe in the back of her underwear drawer since before her mother died. It's made of sheer, black mesh with little red roses embroidered on the fabric and it barely pushes her tits up at all, but Spike used to mouth at her through it until the thin material was so soaked it plastered to her skin.

Buffy looks at herself in the mirror, tracing a fingernail over the shadow of her nipple until it pebbles up a little. She puts on red lipstick and smears it on the corner on accident a little, thumbing at the smudge.

Now her chin is a little red, like she just ate. 

"Buffy?" Spike calls from downstairs. "Where'd you run off to, pet?"

Buffy sits down on the bed and folds her hands in her lap. Should she lay on it? Maybe she could prop up on one elbow or something. 

She doesn't wanna look like she's trying too hard.

By the time she decides to move, Spike is opening the door.

His pupils go all big and shiny when he sees her, like a cartoon cat. 

Buffy chews on her bottom lip; her lipstick tastes like wax.

Spike closes the door gently and says, "Wanna make sure I'm getting the right idea here."

"You can get ideas," Buffy tells him.

Spike locks the door.

"You sure?" he asks her, even as he shifts in closer. He changed out of his stupid workout clothes after they got home; he's in black jeans and a dark blue tee.

"No," Buffy admits, and pulls him down with both hands.

He's hungry. She feels it in the way he kisses her, in his hands rubbing tentatively up her thighs, back down to her knees when they touch the lace trim on her panties. 

He must be hungry all the time, living half a monster's life, but he keeps his teeth filed down. 

Buffy splits his lip back open when she bites into it.

He leaves little streaks of red when he kisses her face and down her neck; she watches in the mirror.

Spike kisses every inch of her. He kisses her cheeks, her nose, the point of her chin and that little bumpy part on the tip of her shoulder. He kisses everywhere the lace doesn't touch: the tiny line of cleavage between her breasts and the pinched undersides, the soft little hairs that trail from her bellybutton down, the insides of her thighs and ticklish undersides of her knees.

He kisses her for so long she's starting to think he forgot there's anything else.

Buffy slides her hand into his hair the third time he makes his way back up from ankle to hip, bypassing her soaking wet crotch, and begs, "Spike."

"Mm?" he asks conversationally, and nibbles on a rib.

Her feet twitch. "You can…"

"Yeah?" Spike trails his nose up between her breasts. "Lay back, then."

She sinks against the mattress, laying across the bed shortways and drawing up her knees.

He falls on top of her, all glittery eyes and pointed tongue, peeking out between his lips, and starts kissing down her body again. His teeth catch against her shoulder, scraping down to the dip of her collarbone, and he sucks her breast into his mouth with his tongue swirling across her nipple through the mesh.

She gasps, her eyes fluttering shut, and she remembers him. She remembers how it felt like love.

Spike kisses down her ribs and to her bellybutton, all open-mouthed and tingly-cool, and right before he gets to her lace-covered lower belly, he glances up at her and—

Blows a raspberry on her stomach.

"Oh my God!" Buffy squeals, kicking her legs out at him. "You dick!"

Spike grins, dodging a kick to the head as he tickles under her armpits. "What, this ain't what you had in mind?"

"That's it," Buffy says. "I'm staking you."

She wriggles out from underneath him and runs for the weapons stash in the closet—and gets his arms wrapped around her before she's halfway there, bare, strong forearms squeezing her against him.

"Not so fast, Slayer," Spike purrs, slipping back into sexy as easily as he left it. His hand caresses her ribs like she's a scared animal, fingertips barely nudging against the lace on her hip.

Fuck. Buffy tips her head back against his shoulder as his fingers finally, finally go south, tickling her through the fabric before circling her clit.

Spike's lips brush against the shell of her ear and down her neck, all sweet and open-mouthed with a hint of teeth and it's been so long that she feels like crying, her nose going stuffy like she's the one who had it broken, and the only time he tasted her she was saying goodbye.

Did he think about it? Did he wish he hadn't?

His dick is straining against his jeans; the zipper catches on the back of her panties when she strains against him, too, just to feel how good he is at holding her.

He reaches the crook of her neck and bites playfully wearing his human face, just hard enough that she bucks into his hand.

"Do it," she says.

Spike's hips jerk. He says—

"Please," she whispers. Turns her face up to meet his swimming eyes and touch his cheek. "I want you, Spike."

His bones shift under her touch. Such a pretty monster, when you know it.

"I love you," she says softly.

Spike closes his eyes. His cheek tilts into her palm and his fingers circle her clit again, dragging down through the wetness seeping through her crotch and back up to rub her harder.

Buffy closes her eyes too.

"On three," Spike murmurs teasingly. 

His hand slides back up to her belly.

"One—"

He slips it under her panties.

"Two—"

His fangs sink in at the same moment his finger does, all this sticky-sweet pleasure-pain and an ugly little moan of relief from the back of her throat.

"Bastard," she says breathlessly, arching up onto her toes. "Oh."

He drinks slowly, his mouth turning warm with her blood as he pumps his one, two fingers inside her, the heel of his palm pressing relentlessly into her clit, and she slumps in his arms when she comes—whimpers a little when the bite ends.

"Buffy," he murmurs, his fingers still slipping through her cunt. "God."

She pouts, stumbling with him to the bed and letting him drape her across it. "You could've taken more."

Spike is still in vamp face. He grins mischievously at her and kisses right down her middle, teeth snapping teasingly at her bra, and looks up at her from between her thighs.

"Don't worry, kitten," he says, licking his fangs. "Not done with you yet."

He slips her panties off and drapes them over the lamp, then buries his face in her cunt.

"God," Buffy says, and maybe she is a little lightheaded from the blood loss or he's just even better at this than she remembered, because she's basically not on the Earth planet anymore. 

His tongue curls inside her, drinking her more greedily than he did her blood, and, God, his hands. All over her thighs, her stomach, sliding all the way up her ribs and pinning her by the hips. He sucks hard on her clit and tucks two fingers back inside her and smears spit and her own wetness all over the inside of her thigh when his fangs prick her there.

"Oh God," she breathes. "Spike."

She's so close and it hurts and she loves him and his hair (his pretty hair) is under her fist and she makes a high-pitched noise like an animal when he bites down.

It's sharper here; she can feel it when he takes a pull and she gushes warm in his mouth, and she loves him. She's coming so hard she can't think but she remembers that. Her whole body feels like it's singing, or made of Pop Rocks fizzing inside strawberry jelly, pop, pop, under her ribs.  

She comes until her vision is fuzzy around the edges like an old movie. He kisses her pussy one last time and crawls up her melted-chocolate body.

"Hi," Buffy whispers. 

Spike's forehead goes even crinklier. "Hi."

Buffy reaches up and taps her finger on his smushy-cute nose. "Boop."

The demon face melts away; Spike is beaming at her all mushy and soft with eyes so blue she wants to eat them, and she wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him.

"Love you, baby," he murmurs between kisses, shifting restlessly between her legs. "Love you so much."

His mouth tastes warm and sharp. She slides her hands up his back, under the shirt, until he gets the hint and pulls it off.

"Love you," she echoes. "Fuck me?"

"Yeah," he says, his hands reaching for the clasp on her bra. "Yeah, love, let me—"

She fumbles with his jeans, which totally gets in the way of taking off her bra, but then they're naked and, oh, when was the last time she really looked at him? At this sweet body, this killer's body with sharp bones begging to be gnawed on, and if that's what gets her cunt wet she probably is just an animal after all.

Like him, with easier teeth.

"Look at you," he says, the way people point out sunsets or a really good moon, Look, look, isn't it beautiful? Isn't the world good? and then his hands are wiping her cheeks.

"Sorry," she says, her voice all small and teary.

"What's wrong?" he asks worriedly. "Did I…?"

"I just love you," Buffy tells him, and the smile wobbles just right. "It feels really good to love you."

Spike breathes out softly, his head tilting to one side. "Feels good to let you."

They kiss again, and Buffy shimmies up the pillows a little and trails her hand down his chest, fingertips tickling his stomach, and wraps her hand around his dick. He's still cool here, not like his hands or the soft Oh of his mouth, and it makes her throat bob.

(He was cold the first time he pushed inside her, too. And she was warm, and she made him warm, and it was easy.)

"God, Buffy," he says, and she guides him inside her with a stuttering gasp of relief.

"Spike," she says.

"Here, love." His forehead against hers, his hips barely moving. "I'm here."

She kisses him, hot and open-mouthed. He didn't kiss anybody else while she was gone.

Would there have been somebody else?

She's glad there wasn't—some mean little part of her hopes there won't ever be, thinks, God, please be happy but not like this, let me go but don't forget me. Don't forget, don't forget. They'll make some other girl but say you won't love her like this.

And he can't hear her, she knows, but his hands are on her breasts. His tongue is in her mouth and his cock is sliding into her again, again, and say you won't love her like this.

Buffy flips them over and sways above him, her hands slipping up his chest with her thumbs catching his nipples. The world goes a little fuzzy for a second.

"Alright there, love?" Spike asks, holding her steady by the hips.

Buffy blinks, then smiles when he comes back into focus. He's still inside her; she rocks her hips a little.

"Yeah," she says. "Just kinda woozy. Good woozy." She dips down to kiss him. "Goozy."

"Uh huh," he murmurs, sliding a hand up into her hair. "Feeling that bite now, yeah?"

Her thigh aches deliciously. She giggles and bites hard on his earlobe.

"Little minx," Spike teases. He rolls them over again and fucks her deep and slow, kissing all down the side of her neck. "You tell me 'f gets too much, yeah?"

"Psh," says Buffy.

"Yeah." Spike nibbles on her jaw. "Psh."

Buffy wraps her arms around his neck, playing with the little baby hairs at the base of his skull. She tugs him up until he's looking at her, their noses almost brushing.

Her eyes feel big and wide. Her ribcage swells every time he thrusts, this stuttering pleasure like mini earthquakes that makes her breath quiver, and the way he's looking at her makes her feel like she has a hand on his throat.

"Buffy," he says.

She curls her toes up and says, "Harder."

Spike wraps her calf around his waist and snaps his hips. 

Buffy moans, her face tilting up with the big sunburst of it. She's so close, so wet and full of him, cunt and ribcage and hands, this fistful of hair and her fingernails digging into his ass to urge him closer. She sinks her teeth into his shoulder and fills her mouth, too.

"Close," Spike pants. "Buffy—"

And it's so good, having him. Being a little made of him, in the tiny spaces the dying left behind. Can she give it back? Can he taste it in her?

Buffy drags his mouth back down to her throat.

"Fuck." Spike's shoulders tremble, coiling muscle like a caged animal pacing, head bowed like something else. "Can't. Buffy, shouldn't. I—"

She digs her thumb into her own neck, reopening the wound, and comes for the monster. Sharp teeth and a sob that smears the blood on his mouth (who from?) and that feeling she had—

("I read in this book," Willow whispered at sixteen, their faces just inches apart on the pillows, "that in French they call an orgasm, 'a little death.'")

—like it was done. Like it could end.

("Doesn't that make it sound scary?" Willow asked.)

And she kisses him, and he drinks, and he lifts his head with that perfect shiny ruby color dripping down his chin.

A long time ago, he told her he didn't want anybody to kill her but him. She didn't get it, really, until a lot later, that what he said was: I want you to live forever.

"Sorry," she whispers, touching the wet warm blood.

Spike makes that scrunchy face at her, even though the vamp face is fading away. "For what? Buffy, that was…"

"I know," she says. A trickle of come leaks down her thigh. "For me, too."

"Are you—" Spike clears his throat, glancing away. "Did I hurt you?"

Buffy swallows down a hysterical sound. She turns his face back to her and promises, "No, Spike—it was perfect."

Spike melts into her touch, drooping all the way down until their foreheads are pressed together. "Nothing down here's perfect, love."

She wrinkles her nose and admits, "Messy."

He huffs out a laugh, kissing the tip of her nose, and says, "Let's get cleaned up then."

"Mm." Buffy stretches and maybe-successfully wiggles her fingers and toes. "I don't see walking in my immediate future."

Spike laughs again. "I can take care of that. Hang tight a mo', pet."

She makes a grumbly noise when he leaves her in bed; he braces over her again to suck her pouty lip into his mouth before pulling on a pair of sweatpants and disappearing.

Buffy lazes in bed for a few minutes, listening to the sound of water running in the bathroom and Spike's feet down and up the stairs. 

"Coast is still clear," Spike says when he comes back, his mouth clean and hair a total disaster with scratch marks she doesn't remember leaving all the way down his chest. "C'mere, love."

"Mm?" Buffy asks sleepily, which is answered when he scoops her up and carries her into the bathroom, where there's a bubble bath a'brewing.

Spike sits her on the edge of the tub, then strips out of his pants again and says, "Test that water for me, pet?"

Buffy dips her hand in. "Right side of lobster."

"Got it in one," Spike says, grinning all goofy and proud, then curses when Buffy tries to roll herself into the water. "Bloody hell, woman."

"Would've worked," she grumbles, but she sighs happily when he helps her climb in gently and pulls her against his chest. "Mm, magic bubbles."

"Pretty sure I got 'em at Walmart," says Spike.

The water sloshes a little when Buffy reaches to shut the faucet off. She snuggles back against him, wiggling a little extra on purpose when she realizes he's hard again, and says, "All boyfriend bubbles are magic."

"Are they now?" Spike teases, grabbing her wrist when she tries to reach between them. "Supposed to be cleaning you up."

"Yeah," Buffy says. "So if we fuck in here, that's just, like, extra efficient."

Spike hums, tugging at one of her earrings with his teeth. "Not sure I can argue with that one."

"Duh," says Buffy. She tips her head back and moans when his hand slips between her legs. "I'm… a genius."

"I know, baby," Spike murmurs. He rocks his hips into her loose fist, slippery with lavender-vanilla bubbles and splashing more water out of the side of the tub.

Which is, you know, a mess someone's gonna have to clean later, but Buffy's not gonna point that out. She's a little busy.

 

~*~

 

They get off in the bath, then actually get clean in the bath, and by then Buffy's not even that wobbly anymore but she lets Spike dress her in nothing besides one of his t-shirts and carry her downstairs anyway. Her chest goes a little tight, looking up at him like that.

Spike leaves her on the couch and comes back with a bottle of Pedialyte and Buffy's abandoned turkey sandwich.

Buffy frowns at the strawberry-flavored bottle. "Do you think Pedialyte knows how much money they make off of sex?"

"They should send us a thank you card if they do," Spike says, wrapping himself around her. He kisses down the side of her neck. "Remember how much of this we went through that first month?"

Buffy hums, tipping herself back into his touch. "You bought a bigger fridge."

"'Bought' ain't the word I'd use," Spike teases. His hands caress her thighs, pushing up the hem of her borrowed shirt. 

She rolls her eyes, cracking open the Pedialyte and chugging half of it even though it tastes like if strawberries were depressed. 

Buffy reaches for the sandwich and feels a dull thrill between her legs when her butt presses back against his erection. Usually she at least gets through the refuel before round three.

"Wow," she says around a mouthful of turkey and mayo. "With the stamina."

"'S your blood," he murmurs, maybe a little embarrassed, with his face hiding in the crook of her neck. "Makes me…"

Heat crawls all the way from Buffy's chest to the tips of her ears. "Oh."

She's getting wet again, his hands massaging hungry little circles into her thighs, just barely grazing the achy part of the bite mark. 

He must be really distracted to not notice, because he mutters, "Sorry."

"God," Buffy says, and slides off the couch. "Shut up."

Spike stares at her with pupil-blown eyes, his teeth flashing a little in his open mouth. "Buff—"

She yanks his sweatpants down his hips and swallows his cock as far as she can take it. And, okay, sure, maybe it's like a little weird that her blood is like vampire strawberries and caviar or whatever, but on the other hand: Spike sobs and pulls her hair really good.

"Buffy," he breathes, hips jerking a little. She wraps her hand around his base, all slick with spit already from how much her mouth is watering. "Fuck."

The hand that isn't making a fist in her hair brushes the rest of it away from her face, knuckles stroking her cheeks. His thighs are quivering already and she's barely doing anything, just moving her hand and letting him fuck her mouth a little and looking up at him with her eyes all bright and loving.

"Beautiful," Spike tells her softly. "Buffy, I love you so much. Not gonna last, love."

She swirls her tongue around near the tip.

"Oh, fuck," Spike swears. His head jerks back, eyelids fluttering, and he tugs a little harder on her hair. "Oh, hell."

Buffy squeezes him a little tighter and sucks her cheeks back, still watching his face with this big warm bubble in her chest like she's a thing of champagne, and maybe it's the little ache in her jaw but something makes her eyes sting a little, her nostrils flaring, and she reaches for his free hand and laces their fingers together.

He comes hard, the tightening fist in her hair making her cunt throb, and then melts back against the couch like a sleepy cat.

Buffy spits into a wad of napkins and crawls back into his lap.

"Bloody hell," he says breathlessly.

"Yup," says Buffy, kissing the corner of his mouth. "Still got it."

Spike reaches forward and grabs her Pedialyte off the coffee table. "Here, love."

Buffy straddles his thighs instead.

"Oi," he warns. "You need to hydrate."

Buffy pouts at him.

"I mean it," Spike says.

Buffy rocks her hips, rubbing her slick all over his still half-hard cock, which seems a little confused about which direction it's supposed to be going with that.

Spike licks his lips. He waggles the bottle in front of her face.

Buffy grabs it and says, "I can multitask."

"Just take five minutes to drink the bloody electrolytes," Spike says, raising a kinda annoyed eyebrow.

Buffy crosses her arms and says, "God, you know, that is so sexist of you?"

"What?" asks Spike.

"Like you can drink and fuck at the same time but I can't!" Buffy says. 

Spike says, "Oh, bloody hell, you're not serious."

"I am serious, and don't call me Shirley!"

"I didn't say 'surely,' you barmy—oh, hell, Buffy—"

Buffy is fighting back giggles as she sinks down onto Spike's dick, holding the bottle of Pedialyte up in one hand as the other guides him into her. "It's gonna work, okay?"

"You're off your bird is what you are," Spike tells her. He reaches for the Pedialyte. "At least let me—"

"No," says Buffy, holding it out of reach. "Feminism."

Spike says, "Jesus Christ."

"Okay, okay." Buffy wiggles a little to get settled, biting her bottom lip at the achy-deep feeling of him inside her. "It's gonna work. Lemme just—" She balances on top of him and uses both hands to open the bottle. "See?"

"You're very talented, love," Spike tells her, his lips finally twitching. "Now that you've made the point, can— oh, fuck."

"Uh huh," Buffy says smugly, shifting her hips in another slow, easy roll. "That's what I thought, buddy."

She brings the bottle up to take a drink and basically be a big showoff about it, humming while she rides him with no hands, except Spike grabs her hips and rocks up into her next move, which is the exact wrong combination of fuck yes and woah that surprises her into spitting a mouthful of strawberry Pedialyte all over his chest.

Spike stares at her in shock.

"... Oops?" she says sweetly.

"Give me the bottle," says Spike.

"We can talk this out," Buffy says. 

Spike tries to sit up and lunge for it, except he's still very much inside her and things get kind of cervix-y, and Buffy yelps and splashes Pedialyte all over them both when she shoves him back down to the couch.

Buffy looks at Spike.

Spike looks at Buffy.

They burst into laughter.

"It's gonna—it's gonna work!" Buffy insists, laughing so hard she doubles over and presses her forehead to his collarbone. "Just gimme—gimme a sec—"

Spike is giggling hysterically, still half-heartedly trying to pry the bottle out of her hand. "Just had a bath, and you—"

"Look, it's fine," says Buffy. "I'll fix it."

She licks a big stripe of Pedialyte off his chest, swirling her tongue around in the little dip between his collarbones where some is pooling, and—

"Oops," she says again.

Spike pushes onto an elbow to peer around the back of the couch, following her gaze, which is fixed on: Tara and Dawn, who are standing in the foyer with the front door still cracked behind them.

"Okay," Dawn says judgmentally. "I'm pretty sure that's really the kind of thing I'm not supposed to see."

Buffy sits up, letting Spike's oversized t-shirt pool around her thighs and (hopefully) cover the worst of it. She asks, "Is there literally any other explanation you would believe here?"

"What's with the drinks and stuff?" Dawn asks. "Is that, like, the freakazoid version of whipped cream?"

"It's for feminism," says Buffy on instinct.

"... What?" asks Dawn.

Buffy says, "Go to your room."

"I hate it here," says Dawn, but she almost smiles on her way up the stairs.

Tara stays where she is, raising a really judgy eyebrow at them both.

"Hey, Sunshine," says Spike. "You're home—" He looks at the clock. "An hour after you said you'd be."

Tara says, "Congrats on the sex, guys," and follows Dawn upstairs.

Buffy sighs and takes a long drink of Pedialyte; Spike flops back against the couch.

"So, on the minus side?" Buffy says. "Everything about that."

He hums in agreement.

"But on the plus side?" Buffy says.

Spike narrows his eyes at her suspiciously.

Buffy grins. "They're definitely not coming back downstairs."

"Put the damn bottle down."

 

~*~

 

Buffy sleeps until noon, wakes Spike up for lazy technically-not-morning sex, then sleeps until three. She finally drags herself out of bed when the headache living behind her eyes starts to feel so permanent she's considering giving it a name and pulls a pair of boyshorts on under the baggy t-shirt she grabs back off the floor. Spike grumbles and pulls the covers back over his head.

Tara is sitting at the kitchen island, reading a book while something cooks in the oven. She slips a bookmark into place when Buffy walks in, greeting, "Hey, she lives."

"Mm, that's me," Buffy says, grabbing a mug from the cabinets. "Alive-o gal."

"Sleep well or not at all?" Tara asks teasingly.

Buffy smiles sheepishly. "I think there were lapses in consciousness somewhere in there."

Tara smiles back.

Buffy rubs the back of her neck. "Is Dawn home?"

"Oh, she's over at Janice's," Tara tells her.

"Okay." Buffy pours herself a cold cup of coffee. "Um, I'm sorry about the… that."

"Oh, it's okay," Tara says quickly. "You guys could've been, like, way more naked."

Buffy huffs out a laugh. 

"I'm happy for you, really," Tara says. "I… I know you…"

"Yeah," Buffy says. She scrunches up her face when she takes a sip. "But, um, what you said helped a lot? So, thanks."

"Um, you're welcome," Tara says. She hesitates, looking down and tucking her hair behind her ears. "Are you, um… is it… safe?"

Buffy frowns. "What, the coffee? I mean, it's a little stale, but—"

"The s-sex," Tara says.

"Oh," says Buffy. She rubs at her arm. "I—I mean, vampires can't have kids, so."

Tara says, "Buffy—your neck."

Buffy touches at the overlapping bite marks, which are tender to the touch. The second one is a little bruise-y.

"Oh," she says again. "Um, yeah." She puts the coffee mug down, then picks it up again, gesturing with it a little. "I mean, not, like, safe, I guess, but Spike knows what he's doing."

"And he can do that with… with the chip?" Tara asks.

Buffy shifts guiltily. "Um, yeah—we don't, like, totally know how it works, but a lot of it is like, the intention? And, um, he's not trying to hurt me, so…"

"Okay," Tara says. "It's just that, um, after how you were talking last week, it—it seems kind of… fast? Oh, I mean, not like, well—I just wanna make sure you're okay?"

Buffy smiles and says, "I'm good."

"Good." Tara smiles nervously. "I'm really, really glad."

Buffy hesitates for a second, hovering near the fridge, and then comes to sit next to her. "It was kind of, like—it all just clicked, you know? I was—I was still kinda scared, you know, but I also wasn't anymore?"

She looks down at her coffee, smiling a little as she swirls it around, and says, "I remembered who he is."

"Who's what now?" Spike asks, coming around the corner. He's still shirtless, a pair of clean sweatpants hanging off his hips and his hair a mess of curls. 

"Aw, honey, I thought you wanted to sleep more," Buffy says.

Spike wraps his arms around her waist and hooks his chin over her shoulder.

"Got lonely," he mutters, pressing a kiss to her cheek. "'M interrupting?"

"Nah," Tara tells him, and the oven timer goes off right on cue. "Oh, hang on."

She slips on an oven mitt and pulls a tray of oatmeal raisin cookies out of the oven.

"Ooh, breakfast," Buffy says, wiggling her fingers.

Tara says, "Cookies are for old spinsters who are coming to terms with the reality that they're gonna die alone."

Buffy says, "Honey, I want a divorce."

"Oi," says Spike. "They're not even chocolate chip."

Tara rolls her eyes and hands Buffy a plate.

 

~*~

 

"Okay," Xander says, pausing the TV when the show hits a commercial break. "I can't take it anymore, I need advice here."

Buffy looks at Xander, then between herself and Spike. They're cuddled up on the couch, two beers deep each. Buffy has been wearing the same sweatpants as pajamas for two weeks and is really seriously considering doing popcorn as a meal for the second time in one day. This morning Spike got into a fight with a small bird trapped in the garage and lost.

"... From us?" she asks.

"See, the thing is—and I'm in so much pain saying this," Xander says. "You guys are pretty much in the only vaguely functional long-term relationship I know of."

"Aww, honey," Buffy tells Spike, looking up at him with her head on his shoulder. "We're functional."

Spike says, "You know it, baby," and kisses her.

"Guys, focus," says Xander.

Buffy says, "Sorry, what's up?"

Xander wipes his hands on his pants and says, "Okay, so, uh, you know how I'm getting married next year?"

"... Yeah?" Buffy says.

Xander says, "I'm freaking out, man!"

Buffy jumps, spilling her beer a little.

"Sorry," Xander says, lowering his voice again. "Just, with the freakage."

Buffy looks at Spike. "Kitten room?"

"Yeah," he agrees. "Kitten room."

"What?" Xander asks, but he follows them when they both get up. "Why the cats?"

"Recent evidence suggests the little buggers help with conversations like this," Spike explains.

Buffy adds, "Tara felt way better about dying alone afterwards."

Xander steps over the baby gate. "Tara's gonna die alone?"

"No way," says Buffy. "She's got us."

Xander lays down on the ground. 

PlayStation immediately trots over and sits on his chest, kneading her paws against his throat.

"Oof," Xander says.

Buffy sits cross-legged with her back to the side of the armchair; Spike sits next to her, resting one hand on her knee and scritching Boots under the ears with his other.

"So what's up?" Buffy asks.

"Okay, so, like—ugh." Xander picks up PlayStation and relocates her to lower on his chest. She squawks at him and digs her little claws into his shirt. "Do you guys ever get that feeling that like, maybe you're kind of secretly a piece of shit human being and you shouldn't be in love, or like in a relationship, and no one should ever love you and maybe you should change your name and move to Antigua?"

"Nope," Buffy lies, at the same time Spike says, "Can't relate."

Xander lifts his head to look at them.

"Bloody hell, mate, I'm a vampire," Spike tells him. "You know, formerly evil, 'piece of shit human being' woulda been generous? Yeah, maybe the thought's occurred to me."

Buffy shrugs and says, "I used to feel like I didn't deserve Spike all the time."

Spike looks at her with his eyebrows lifted: you did?

She hugs both arms around his middle.

Spike kisses the top of her head.

"Okay, so how do you, you know, know you shouldn't flee the country?" Xander asks.

"Hellmouth residence is kinda mandatory for me," Buffy jokes.

"Guys," Xander says tiredly.

Buffy bites her bottom lip. She reaches up and snags Miss Kitty, who was sleeping in the chair, and plops the sleepy Siamese into her lap. 

"She loves me," Spike says quietly. "If even part of that's true, I—do whatever I could to deserve it."

Buffy looks up at him. "You do."

He smiles in disbelief and shakes his head.

"But see, you guys don't seem so much with the commito-phobia," Xander says. "You were pretty much married before the, you know, marriage."

Buffy leans her head on Spike's shoulder. "I mean, we're only, like, tax benefits married, but sure. I'm not like, running for the hills."

Spike takes his hand off her knee. "Were pretty gunshy in the beginning."

Buffy pouts, scratching Miss Kitty behind the ears with both hands, and says, "I thought I was gonna have to kill you when you turned evil again. Because, you know, that literally happened to me before."

"Not saying you didn't have your reasons," Spike says a little defensively. Boots jumps off his thigh and chases after a jingle ball that Henrietta smacks across the room.

Buffy tilts her head up to look at him. "But it's not like I stayed all flighty. I mean, after we beat Adam I was pretty much all-in."

Spike noses at her temple. "I know, love."

"C'mon, Buff, you were all-in way before the Adam thing," Xander says skeptically. "You were just represso-gal about it."

"Was not," Buffy says stubbornly.

Xander says, "Yeah, you were just sneaking off for little midnight rendezvouses every night in a casual way."

"Exactly," says Buffy.

Rupert and Henrietta scamper across the room. Henrietta leaps over Xander's legs in a smooth motion; Rupert trips over his own feet and bowls over with a pitiful meow.

"That's my boy," Spike says proudly, making kissy noises and wiggly his fingers.

Rupert's ears perk up. He scrambles over in a whirlwind of limbs and headbutts the underside of Spike's chin.

"We're getting off topic here," Xander says.

"Right," Buffy says. "Wedding. Wiggins. Wedding wiggins."

"You guys have had rough patches though, haven't you?" Xander asks. "I mean, it's not all kittens and donuts."

Buffy says, "I guess not."

"So how do you, you know," Xander asks, "deal with it?"

Buffy looks at Spike, who raises an eyebrow at her.

"We… talk to each other?" Buffy says.

Xander sits up in annoyance and complains, "See, I knew you guys would say some crazy soul-bonded—" He cuts off. "Did you say 'talk?'"

"Yeah," says Buffy.

"Pretty much," says Spike.

Xander says, "Well that's not gonna happen," and thumps his head back down on the ground.

"I don't like it any more than you do, buddy," Buffy says wryly.

"But you do it for me," Spike murmurs, kissing her on the temple. She makes a happy mumbly noise and tilts her face up, meeting him in a deep kiss with the kittens squeaking in their laps.

Buffy cups the side of his jaw, smiling a little when he leans into her touch.

Xander says, "Guys, I'm trying to call off a wedding here, can we focus?"

"Woah," Buffy says, breaking away to look at him. "Call it off?"

"I dunno, maybe?" Xander says. He stares vacantly at the ceiling. "Fuck, I dunno, man."

"Why?" Buffy asks. "Is it Anya?"

Spike demands, "Why would it be Anya?"

Buffy says, "Not the time, honey."

"It's not Anya," Xander says. "I mean, I love Anya. It's just, you know, when I said I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, I meant, like this life, y'know? The one we currently have, where I'm responsible for a cactus that gets a little too needy sometimes and separate apartments."

Buffy says, "Those darn cactuses," and really successfully ignores the litter boxes in the corner she was supposed to change last night.

"But now it's all, 'Xander, let's buy a house!' and, 'Xander, let's name our children,'" Xander says. "You guys, I'm a children!"

"Becoming more and more apparent," says Spike.

Buffy pinches him on the ribs: be supportive.

Spike pulls her hair.

"And I'm talking to my family all the time," Xander continues, ignoring them. "I hate my family. What if I'm my family?"

"Huh?" asks Buffy.

"My dad is so angry," Xander says. His voice gets all weird and strained. "He's just this angry, total loser bastard of a person, and what the fuck am I supposed to do with that, you know? Who am I supposed to be instead?"

Buffy's heart wrenches. 

"You're Xander," she says. "You're not like that."

"Maybe I am," Xander says quietly. "Buffy, sometimes I just look at her and I hear his voice and I…"

Buffy puts Miss Kitty next to Rupert in Spike's lap and crawls across the floor to lay next to Xander, staring up at the ceiling with her hands folded over her stomach.

There's a water stain near the doorway.

"Spike still wants to eat people sometimes," she says. "Don't you?"

"Yeah," he says.

Xander asks, "And this is comforting… how?"

"'Cause it never really goes away," Spike says. "Whatever you've got in you, the nasty bits you don't like—but nothing says you have to listen." He pauses, kissing the cute little tip of Rupert's ear, his voice going soft. "And it gets quieter, some days. Some days you could almost be…"

Buffy's eyes start to itch. She pushes up onto her forearms and rubs at them a little, swallowing thickly.

"But you've got a chip," Xander says.

"You've got a soul," Spike says evenly. "For all the good they do."

Xander quirks his lips a little. "Yeah, some bargain."

Spike looks like he's gonna say something else, but he looks down at the kittens instead, petting each one with a hand.

"So… I'm guessin' Anya knows a big fat zero percent of this, huh?" Buffy asks.

"Yep," says Xander.

She smacks him on the chest, narrowly avoiding a snoozing PlayStation.

"Hey!" Xander says.

"Talk to your fiancee, dude," Buffy tells him. "What the hell?"

"Seconding that," says Spike.

Xander says, "But see, if I did that I'd have to stop feeling sorry for myself on your floor, which smells like cat pee by the way, and I really like this look for me."

Buffy turns to Spike. "Does our floor smell like cat pee?"

"Little bit, baby."

Buffy wrinkles up her nose and goes to sit in the armchair.

Spike says, "Stop being a pansy and talk to Anya."

Xander says, "I'll take it under consideration."

"Fine," Spike says, dumping both cats on the ground when he stands up. "I'll tell 'er. She still at work about now?"

"Dude!" Xander yelps, scrambling to his feet. "You can't do that?"

"Why not?" Spike asks. "Phone's work, don't they?"

Xander says, "Buffy, a little help here?"

"I paid the phone bill like, three days ago," she says.

Spike steps over the baby gate into the kitchen.

"Fine, fine, I'll talk to her!" Xander says quickly. "Fucking asshole."

Spike grins victoriously and joins Buffy in the armchair.

"Aww, honey," Buffy says, pulling him into her lap. "We're so good at giving advice."

"I hate both of you," says Xander.

Buffy says, "Xan, I'm sure it's gonna be fine. I mean, just tell her you're a little wigged—it's not like she's gonna freak out or anything."

 

~*~

 

"Hello, Buffy," Anya says, dumping a really heavy suitcase into her arms. "Here are my bags. Thank you for letting me stay here while I decide if I'm gonna take Xander back or not."

"Uh huh," Buffy says, watching Anya march into the house with another suitcase in tow. "'Cause this is definitely a thing I knew was happening."

Spike, coming out of the basement after a smoke, freezes in the doorway with wide eyes.

Buffy smiles pleasantly at him behind Anya's back.

"Buffy, my darling, my love," Spike says, grabbing the suitcase from her, "my goddess, my eternal salvation and sweetest damnation, can Anya stay with us for a few days? Your hair looks beautiful today, by the way."

"Uh huh," Buffy says sweetly.

Tara comes down the stairs, stopping midway when she sees Anya. "Oh, you're early! I was gonna set up the air mattress if you want, or the bed's pretty big if you just wanna share."

"Sharing would be fine," Anya says, following Tara up the stairs. "But we can't make it sexy. I was very explicit with Xander about the terms of our separation. I learned that lesson from Ross and Rachel."

Buffy raises her eyebrow another centimeter.

"I was gonna tell you," Spike says defensively. "You were out."

Buffy rolls her eyes. "Does Dawn know?"

The tell-tale sound of bratty teenage footsteps pounding down the stairs answers that question.

"Anya can not sleep in my room," Dawn insists.

"She's bunking with Tara, bit," Spike tells her.

"And I still get first shower every morning," Dawn continues, talking right over him. "And if she eats all of the cereal she's gotta buy us more and I'm not playing Monopoly with her anymore and why would she even break up with Xander, anyway? Xander's the coolest!"

Buffy tells Spike, "This is gonna be fun."

 

~*~

 

"Do you hate me?" Buffy asks.

Xander looks up from his sprawl on the couch. "Uh, maybe in Bizarro Land."

"It's just, you know," Buffy says, waving a hand around the room. "Your ex-girlfriend lives in our house now."

"Ex-fiancee," Xander says stubbornly. "She's still my girlfriend."

Spike hands him a soda before resettling with Buffy in the armchair. "Keep telling yourself that, mate."

Xander flips him off. "But seriously, guys, it's totally cool. I mean, I'm just glad Real World Sundays are still a thing."

"Really?" Buffy asks.

"I'm occasionally capable of being the bigger person," Xander says. He cracks open the soda can. "I think it was the right call, anyway, you know—being big with the honesty. And I still love her, so I'm glad she's got somewhere to be."

Buffy asks, "Are you sure you're not—"

"Give it a rest, Buff," Xander says.

"Sorry." Buffy rests her cheek on Spike's shoulder. "It's just, you know, with the Willow of it all."

Xander asks, "She still hasn't called, huh?"

Buffy looks down. "I just wish she'd talk to me."

"Uh, no offense, but so you could say what?" Xander asks. "I'm still not sorry and neither is my husband, wanna get coffee next week?"

Buffy glares at him.

"I'm just saying," Xander tells her. "You're kinda at an impasse here."

"Buffy didn't do anything wrong," Spike says irritably.

Xander puts his hands up. "Down, boy. I didn't say she did."

"Does anyone else miss the Oz breakup?" Buffy asks. "Those were simpler times."

"How's she doing, anyway?" Spike asks.

"You know," says Xander, "I'm gonna go with not great. She's pretty much just partying with Amy non-stop, going out to some place named Rack's?"

Spike stiffens.

"What is it?" Buffy asks him, but Xander answers.

"That's the weird thing," Xander tells her. "I get this call from her, saying she needs me to pick her up from there, but I can't find the place anywhere. I just had to drive around downtown until I ran into her."

"That's 'cause he cloaks it," Spike says, still all weirdly tense. "He's a warlock, into the darkest stuff. You've gotta be into the big bad to find it."

Buffy draws her knees up onto the chair and mutters, "I hate this."

"Look, obviously it's a problem," Xander says. "We're in agreement here, but I'm on the thinnest of friend-ice here. She gets all touchy if I bring up anything to do with magic."

Spike says, "Only so much you can do. Not like you can tear her outta there by force." 

"I could," says Buffy.

Spike glances at her. "Not if she's juicing with Rack."

She pouts at him.

"Just being honest, ducks," he says. "This shit's no joke. Way I've heard it told, he knows how to amplify your magic, turn it back on you darker and stronger—and Red's got plenty of power to start with."

"So we do a good ole fashioned Scooby intervention," says Xander.

Buffy says drily, "'Cause that worked super well every time you tried it on me."

"Well we can't just do nothing," Xander insists.

Spike says, "'S like the kittens."

Buffy squints at him.

"Bloody hell, you lot'd be lost without me, wouldn't you?" Spike says. He sighs and sits up a little straight. "You know how you get a cat to like you? You sit yourself down and bloody wait."

"I hate that this makes sense to me," says Xander.

"It does?" asks Buffy.

"Buff, think about it," Spike tells her. "You're hurt bad after a fight, yeah, and someone reaches right for the weak spot—what d'you do?"

"I flinch away," Buffy realizes. "I've gotta protect myself."

Spike says, "Right. But you still need help, don't you? So who do you want help from?"

Buffy looks at her hands. "Someone who's not all pushy about it."

"So circling back to the cat thing," Xander says. "We play it cool. We're just, you know, her pals. And, hey, if she's down to talk about it, we're here!"

"You're here," Buffy says miserably. "We're those people without grades."

"... What?" asks Xander.

Spike says, "Persona non grata."

"What?" asks Xander.

"She doesn't bloody want us around," says Spike.

"You guys scare the shit out of me," Xander says.

Buffy makes a pffbt sound with her lips.

"But, okay, see, I can work with this," Xander tells them, refocusing. "We've just gotta make a gradient."

"A what now?" Buffy asks.

"Okay, it's like, when something changes a little at a time," Xander says. He snaps his fingers. "Gradual. We get you guys back together a little at a time, where it's like, not so much with the pressure."

Buffy says, "That's great, but how?"

"New Year's Eve," says Xander.

"What about it?" Spike asks.

"Throw a party," Xander says. "You know, like a big one? 'Cause she's definitely not gonna wanna miss that and there'll be enough people around that she doesn't have to talk to you."

Buffy asks, "You want us to throw a party at our house where your and Willow's ex-girlfriends live so that we can lure Willow here just to ignore her like a cat?"

"That's correct," says Xander.

"Very Gatsbian," Spike says. "I approve."

Buffy says, "I feel like life can't get weirder, so, like—fine?"

"One problem just occurred to me," Xander says. "Do we have other friends?"

Buffy offers, "Spike and I know a lot of old ladies."

"That's a really solid plan C," Xander tells her.

Buffy wiggles in her seat proudly.

Spike says, "Maybe Tito can come. And, you know, if he happens to see the leaky pipes in the basement…"

"We're not having a threesome with Tito," Buffy says.

"What if I just show a little skin?" Spike suggests. "Low-cut shirt, oh, goodness me, I seem to have dropped my wrench."

Buffy flicks him on the eyebrow.

"What're you guys talking about?" Dawn asks, staring at them suspiciously with a bowl of mac n cheese in her hands.

Buffy explains, "We're gonna have a New Year's Eve party."

"Oh my God, really?" Dawn asks excitedly. "Can I invite my friends?"

Buffy says, "Ask Spike."

Dawn gives her a weird look and turns her head three inches to the right. "Can I invite my friends?"

"Ask Buffy," says Spike.

"Oh my God," says Dawn.

"Yeah, you can invite people," Buffy tells her, her lips twitching a little. She holds up a finger. "But no drinking and no making out on our furniture."

Dawn rolls her eyes and says, "Yeah, 'cause you guys weren't totally doing it on the couch last week."

Xander jumps to his feet.

"We Febreezed it," Buffy says defensively. "Twice."

"I hate it here," says Xander thinly. "Can we relocate this conversation to the dining room?"

Spike says, "It's cute you think that'd help."

"Gross," says Dawn.

"Is there anywhere that's safe?" Xander asks. He holds up a hand. "Don't answer that. Have you had sex in my apartment?"

"Not recently," says Spike.

Buffy smacks him on the chest.

Dawn walks out of the room with her lunch.

"Okay, I'm focusing," Xander says. He halfway sits back on the couch before standing up again. Then he moves to sit on the coffee table and actually looks like he might start crying when Spike licks his teeth at him. "Fucking seriously?"

"Want the chair?" Buffy asks innocently.

"No, I don't, because obviously you've boned on the chair," Xander says. "You know what? It's fine. My clothes are tainted anyway."

He sits on the couch.

Buffy kisses the underside of Spike's jaw.

"Okay, okay," Xander says. "Party. Ulterior-but-good motive party that needs guests. Any ideas?"

"Ooh, we could invite the LA crowd," Buffy says. She pokes Spike in the ribs. "I bet Angel will be a grumpy old man and stay home, but we'll get Cordy and some of the others."

"Win-win to me," says Spike.

"Great plan," Xander says. "And speaking of fellow demon fighters we haven't seen in a while, there's always—oh, shit."

Buffy asks, "What?"

Xander looks at Spike. "Did you ever call Riley?"

Spike says, "I thought you called him."

"I thought you called him."

Buffy asks, "Why would you call—" 

She cuts off, looking between the two of them.

"Riley thinks I'm dead?" she demands.

"Someone's gotta call him," says Xander. 

Spike says, "Not me. Tin Man's always looking for an excuse to whip out a stake."

"Exactly," Xander says. "He already doesn't like you. Take one for the team."

"Not bloody likely," says Spike.

"Hey, maybe Tara can do it!" Xander says brightly.

Tara comes through the front door with her backpack slung over one shoulder. "What am I doing?"

"Callin' Finn and telling 'im Buffy's not dead," Spike says.

"Oh," Tara says. "No thank you."

"Are we declining something?" Anya asks, poking her head around Tara's shoulder. She makes a cool face and flips her hair over her shoulder when she sees Xander.

Buffy says, "Riley still thinks I'm dead."

"Well that's very rude of you," Anya says. "Someone should call him."

Spike says, "Thanks for volunteerin', love."

Anya says, "Oh, not me, but nice try."

Everyone looks at Buffy.

"Um, hello?" Buffy tells them, raising her hand. "Dead girl?"

"Well, yeah, but the point kinda is to tell him you're, you know, not," Xander says. "Call it efficient."

Buffy glares at him.

Xander says, "Just give me the fucking phone."

Tara ditches her backpack near the door and walks over to the cordless's stand in the living room.

"Okay, one problem remaining," Buffy says. "How are we gonna invite Willow?"

"Oh," Tara says, pausing as she hands the phone to Xander. "You're… inviting Willow to something?"

Buffy shifts guiltily in her seat. "Um, we were gonna have a New Year's Eve party—if that's okay."

"No, that's, um—that's fine," Tara says. "I mean, I'll probably just… we don't have to talk."

"That's the idea. Bring your friends!" Xander says. He presses one of the speed dial keys and puts the phone up to his ear. "And I'll invite Willow, since I've gotta do everything around—hey, Riley! Long time no chat, buddy, how's Ohio?"

Buffy tilts her face up at Spike and asks, "Are we making a horrible mistake?"

"Statistically speaking?" Spike asks, cupping her cheek. "At least one."

"We should make bingo cards," Buffy teases, kissing him sweetly. "The free space is someone catches us having sex."

Spike slides his hand up her thigh. "Maybe should get started now."

Xander throws his shoe at them.

 

~*~

 

The thing about Sunnydale is that even though it'll probably never snow here again, Buffy can remember how it looked. On cold days the sky gets that weird shade of blue and she can almost see it covering everything, like when you put two laminate slides on top of each other on a projector, and her feet lift a little higher when she walks like there's something to crunch through.

Restfield should have snow today. It's just after dusk and the wind is catching in Buffy's hair, whipping it against her pinked-up cheeks, and the headstones look so empty on top.

Spike drapes his coat over Dawn's shoulders.

Buffy leans heavier against his side, even though he can't warm her up, and hangs back with him when Dawn kneels next to the grave.

The leather duster pools all around her even though she tries to wrap it around her torso; it slips off a shoulder when she reaches into her jeans pocket and she slips her arms through the sleeves.

"Hi, Mom," she says, twirling the little bracelet in her hands. "Um, I made you this. They came out kinda crappy, but I saved you the best one."

Buffy's lips twitch a little; Spike kisses the top of her head.

Dawn sniffles. "I'm sorry I haven't been back lately. I've been trying really hard at school, and Buffy came home. But I guess you probably know that stuff."

She wipes at her cheeks.

"I still miss you a lot, though," Dawn says. "It's just different when you aren't here. Buffy burned all the cookies."

"Rude," Buffy says wetly.

Dawn almost smiles. She tucks her hair behind her ears and doesn't say anything for a little while.

"But I… I think we're okay," she says eventually. "Or… I think we're gonna be. So you don't have to worry anymore, okay?"

She lays the little woven bracelet next to the wilting flowers in front of the headstone, her black nail polish darker than the deep blue sky, and then gets to her feet.

"Bye, Mom," she says quietly. "See ya soon."

Dawn walks back over and hugs them both, hiccuping into Spike's shoulder. Buffy pets her hair, pressing her forehead to the side of her temple and shivering when the cool leather touches her wrist.

After a moment, Spike pulls away and crouches next to the grave, leaving Dawn to fold into Buffy's arms. 

Buffy holds her, touching her shiny hair and soft coat and listening to the soft sobs in her ear, as Spike lays a little box of tea next to the bracelet.

He says something quietly and trails two fingers across the top of the stone. 

Buffy's throat goes tight when he stands.

"Would—" Her voice cracks.

She clears her throat and tries again.

"Would you guys mind if—" Buffy asks. "Can I be alone?"

Dawn looks up, still sniffling a little, and then over at Spike.

"C'mon, platelet," he says. "Let's stop by the old crypt, yeah? Clem says he's fixin' it up all posh."

Dawn says, "Okay," and hugs Buffy one last time. She loops her arm through Spike's like they're in some old-timey show and walks with him further into the cemetery.

Buffy watches them leave. There's this sharp, painful tug in her chest, tipping her onto the edges of her feet like she's supposed to follow, like she can't do it after all, but it gets a little darker out and they get a little farther away and her heels rock back to the ground.

She sits cross-legged facing the headstone from the side. The ground is cold and hard but the grass tickles her palms a little.

"Um, I know you can't hear me," Buffy says. She plucks a blade of grass between two fingers. "I know that's not… how it works. At least where I was, or—or where we were. But I guess it'd be pretty lame if I was the only one who didn't say anything."

The wind picks up a little.

"So you don't really need me for anything anymore," Buffy tells her. "I guess you didn't ever. But I'm really glad you—" She loses her voice. "I'm glad you didn't have to see it happen. I just think you were so scared of it and it would've been really hard, and I'm okay, see? I'm okay."

It stings her cheeks, especially where the tears are rolling down. It stings until it goes numb.

"And I really miss you, too." Buffy breathes shakily through her nose, rubbing at it with her knuckles. "I miss being up there with you and I know you can't be lonely, but I'm still sorry I had to leave you."

Buffy presses her lips together, feels the ache in her mouth. 

(Thinks about her fingers digging into Spike's jaw.)

"But I think I'm gonna stay here for a while now," Buffy says, and finally, finally smiles. "Will you wait for me, until I get back?"

There's no answer. An owl hoots from the treeline, a little soft and sad and so far away, and it doesn't get any warmer.

Buffy leans forward and wraps her arms around the gravestone, resting her damp cheek on the smooth gray shine, and whispers, "Merry Christmas, Mom."

 

~*~

 

Buffy is finishing up her makeup in the mirror when she feels a very evil pair of hands slide up her thighs from behind.

"If you ruin my outfit, I'm staking you," she tells Spike's not-reflection.

Spike tongues at one of her ruby teardrop earrings. "But then you'd get dust all over your pretty dress, baby."

She catches his hand when it tries to tug off her thong. "Bad."

"So punish me," he tells her.

"Spike," Buffy complains half-heartedly, spreading her thighs a little when he re-routes to rubbing at her through her panties. "People are gonna—get here."

"And I'm gonna have to share you all night," he pouts. His teeth catch on the faint scars on her neck. "Jus' lemme have five minutes."

Buffy rolls her head back to look at him. "Nothing you've done to me has ever taken five minutes."

He grins wickedly.

Buffy sighs and says, "Lock the door."

Spike darts over and back again, hitting his knees in front of her so fast the thump probably echoes down into the living room. Buffy's already given up on the thong in the meantime, which he grabs from around her ankles and tucks into his duster pocket.

"Dick," she mutters, throwing her head back when he buries his face in her cunt.

He squeezes her thighs, hands half disappearing under the blood red sequins of her dress. 

"Oh, fuck," Buffy breathes. She rocks forward, the chair creaking as she grinds her clit against the bridge of his nose, sliding her fingers into his hair and—

Whining when he pulls away when the doorbell rings.

"Bloody hell," Spike mutters. "Who the hell actually comes on time to these things?"

Buffy says, "Who cares?" and drags him forward again.

Spike chuckles delightedly and bites lightly near her clit.

Buffy kicks out a heeled foot, digging the thin point of it into his chest with a little cry of pleasure, and Spike growls hungrily. 

His face shifts, the sharp demon teeth just barely grazing the top of her cunt before settling at the vulnerable inside of her thigh.

Buffy almost comes with nothing touching her besides the tingle of adrenaline running up her spine. She braces her heel hard against his chest, right over his heart, and chokes back a little moan of anticipation. 

Good thing the dress is red.

Spike slips his thumb between her folds, wetting it with her slick, and then rubs gentle circles over her clit, teasing, drawing it out, and—

The doorbell rings again.

"Oh my God," Buffy whines. "Three other people live here."

"Ignore it," Spike coaxes, his thumb still working slowly.

"I…" Buffy gasps, thigh quivering against his mouth. "Yeah. Fuck, do it—do it, please, fuck—"

"Got two minutes left," Spike says, and the doorbell rings a third time, and Buffy tightens her fist in his hair so hard he gasps when she crushes him to her.

She comes jerking against the edge of his palm, the bite ragged and wet against her thigh and her own teeth sunk into her bicep to muffle the sob. The room goes all strobe lights for a second or five, white hot and sloppy, and Spike holds his greedy tongue against the marks so she doesn't get blood on her dress.

Buffy smooths his hair back down absently, trying to get the gel to reset.

"Buffy?" Tara shouts from downstairs. "Riley is here!"

Buffy ruins Spike's hair again, tugging him away when he tries to go back to her pussy. "Buffy can't come to the phone right now!"

"What?" Tara asks.

"I'm— stop it," she hisses, shoving him back on his haunches. "Busy!"

Anya's prim footsteps come up the stairs. She knocks on the door twice and immediately tries to open it. 

When that doesn't work, she cheerfully informs the entire house, "Their door is locked! They're probably having sex."

Spike's mouth is a mess of blood and pussy juice. He grins at Buffy, all gooey and disgusting and okay yeah definitely sexy and also not even a little bit sorry, and shouts, "Yeah, so sod off!"

Buffy kicks him.

He pouts and grabs a towel off the floor to clean up his face.

Anya, sounding mostly unbothered, says, "Spike, you better be down here when Xander gets back. You promised."

"Yeah, yeah," he says, grabbing Buffy by the hips when she stands up. "I know."

Anya's footsteps go back the way they came.

"Spike," Buffy warns when he tugs her forward.

"C'mon, Slayer," he tries, pressing his hard-on against her hip. "Won't take but a minute, so hot for that little cunt of yours."

A little jolt of pleasure zips up through Buffy's clit when she rubs against his thigh. She grabs his wrists and pins him sharply against the vanity, catching sight of her own smug reflection in the mirror.

"Nope," she says, popping the P. "Bad vampire."

Spike licks his teeth.

Buffy leans forward onto her toes, her body sliding up the whole length of his, the sequins catching on the soft cotton of his shirt and his chest swelling when he breathes her in, and says lowly in his ear, "No coming until midnight."

Spike goes really still.

"Buff," he says breathlessly. "Please."

She bites his earlobe with a giggle and flits away, slipping out into the hall. 

Riley, Forrest, and Graham are all standing awkwardly in the foyer, their hands folded in that weird military way they were all still doing the last time Buffy saw them, too.

"Oh, God," Riley says, his jaw dropping when he looks at her. "Buffy."

Her chest tightens a little. She laughs and says, "Yeah, some dress, right? I got it at Macy's, like, twenty percent off."

"No," Riley says. "I mean, uh, you look great, but you—you're…"

Spike comes down the stairs and rests a hand on the small of Buffy's back.

"You're alive," Riley finally manages. He shakes his head. "God, I thought I'd never—it's a miracle."

"That's me," Buffy says, going for cheerful, but it scratches a little. God, why'd they turn the heat up so much? "Your go-to gal for defying the laws of nature."

Riley smiles lopsidedly. "Nothing else ever stopped you."

Buffy hugs him quickly, and even with the lump in her throat it's not a lie to say, "It's good to see you."

"I'm not sure, 'you, too,' covers it," Riley says lightly.

Graham holds out his hand and says, "Good to see you, Buffy."

"Yeah," Forrest says, offering a handshake next. "Glad you're not dead, Blondie."

"Careful, Gates," Graham teases, punching Forrest on the arm. "She's spoken for."

Forrest and Buffy both roll their eyes. 

Riley says, "So, uh, we brought some champagne. And playing cards. We… weren't really sure what kinda party this is gonna be."

"Neither are we," Tara says, coming back in from the living room. "But I can show you where to put the champagne."

The boys follow Tara into the dining room, leaving Buffy and Spike in the foyer—no telling where Anya ended up.

Buffy shuts her eyes and breathes out slowly.

"Alright there, love?" Spike asks quietly.

"Yeah," she says, digging a knuckle into her right eyebrow where the headache always starts. "Just, um…"

"Been a while since someone's seen you for the first time?" Spike guesses.

Buffy wraps both her arms around his middle, smooshing her cheek against his chest. "How do you know me so well?"

"Countless hours of strenuous practice." Spike kisses the top of her head. "And hours of strenuous—"

"Midnight," says Buffy.

"Bah," he says.

Buffy pulls away, taking both his hands in hers and swinging them by their sides. She bats her eyelashes and taunts, "What, you think you can't take it?"

Spike narrows his eyes at her. His pupils are still a little extra wide and his jeans look uncomfortably tight, which makes her mouth water a little; she's still pantyless and she squeezes her thighs together when a trickle of wetness runs down one side.

"You sure you can take it?" Spike challenges, his gaze dropping low with his nostrils flaring pointedly.

Buffy bites the inside of her cheek, then says, "I didn't say I had to wait 'til midnight."

His tongue peeks out between his lips.

Buffy kisses his cheek and says, "If you're good, I'll let you eat me out again."

"Bloody bitch," Spike says warmly, reaching around to grab roughly at her ass.

"That is so not the attitude that's gonna get you fed," Buffy tells him, sticking out her bottom lip in an exaggerated pout.

"Oh, there's plenty of blood in the fridge," Anya chimes in brightly. "I stopped at the butcher's yesterday."

Buffy jumps, looking at Anya a little guiltily.

"Just kidding," says Anya. "I know you were talking about oral sex. You might not want to do that in the foyer if you're gonna get so embarrassed about it."

"The pussy eating or the talking about it?" asks Spike, whose life is saved by the door swinging open to reveal Xander and Dawn.

Xander shouts, "We come bearing—" then lowers his voice when he realizes he's face to face with three people. "Snacks? Spike, buddy, you good? You're looking a little wired."

Spike says—

"Ooh, goodies," Buffy cuts in, wiggling her fingers at the grocery bags in Xander's hands. "Whatcha get me?"

"Only the finest in store brand chips and dip!" Xander says, easily distracted. "Plus, champagne and sparkling apple juice for me and the teenage girls." He pauses. "Okay, to clarify—"

"We're setting up in the dining room," Buffy says drily.

Anya says, "Spike, come with me," and literally steals Buffy's boyfriend away.

Buffy rolls her eyes and goes with Xander and Dawn into the dining room, where the guys are helping Tara set up the rest of the food.

"Riley!" Xander says. "Long time no see, buddy."

Buffy slides next to Tara and asks, "How ya doin'?"

"Well," Tara says, "if Willow shows up I think I'm gonna barf. And if Willow doesn't show up, I think I'm gonna barf."

"It's good to be consistent," Buffy says, patting her on the arm.

Tara smiles nervously. "How about you?"

"Uh huh," says Buffy.

Tara says, "At least we'll know one way or another s-soon."

"That's the spirit," Buffy says, and then the doorbell rings.

Jeez, with the punctuality. It's not even ten after eight.

Buffy goes to get the door: it's Giles, holding a medium-sized gift bag in one hand and wearing a 2002 headband.

"Wow, Giles," Buffy says, tilting her head. "I'm getting some serious mixed messages here. You know the time of presents was last week, right?"

"Very funny," Giles says, and holds the bag out of reach when she goes to grab it. "Ah, ah—no opening until I talk to you. I can't stay long."

Buffy says, "Aw, man. I was hoping you'd stay all year."

Giles stares at her, unimpressed.

"Buff?" Spike calls from the kitchen. "Who's at the door?"

"Giles!" Buffy shouts back.

Spike comes around the corner with his game face on, hands shoved in his jacket pockets. "Getting senile in your old age, Pops? We did Christmas already."

"Having this conversation was bad enough the first time," says Giles. "Where's Anya?"

Spike jerks his thumb towards the kitchen.

Buffy shuts the door behind Giles, then frowns as she goes up to Spike, tugging on his lapels. "Are you okay?"

He tilts his head at her.

"With the bumpies," she says.

"Oh." Spike waves her off. "Clem's jus' self-conscious and all—you know, only demon, commando boys around. I'll shake it off when the girls get here."

Buffy's frown deepens. "I thought Clem, like, ate embarrass-y feelings?"

Spike says, "Yeah, but he went to his niece's amateur dance recital yesterday and he's watchin' his figure."

Buffy smiles and says, "You're a good friend."

"Let's not be hasty here," Spike warns. "I might eat Anya 'fore the night's out if she doesn't leave off this scheming about Harris."

"Hey." Buffy pouts at him. "I thought you only wanted to eat me."

Spike cups her butt in both hands, reeling her closer, and murmurs, "Yeah, well, someone took 'erself off the menu."

Buffy wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him. "Aww, but honey, you look so cute when you're hungry."

Spike says, "Look real cute on my—"

"Aw, hell no," says an unfamiliar voice. "You never said there were two of you."

Buffy whips around, shoving Spike behind her, and comes face to face with a crowd of people in the foyer: Cordy, Wesley, Angel, and three total strangers who definitely just saw her sucking face with a vampire and also probably half her ass, and also—

"Is that a baby?" Buffy asks shrilly, at the same time Angel demands, "Is that a ring?"

"Oh my God," Buffy says. "Angel, what the hell?"

Angel splutters, "What—I—hello?"

Cordelia sweeps into the room and wraps Buffy up in a hug. "Buffy! It's so good to see you."

"Um, hi," Buffy says. "Same?"

"Uh," says the same guy who sounded annoyed before, who's standing in the back between a green-skinned demon and a tall woman with glasses. "Are any of you fuckers gonna explain the wack-ass vampire hangin' out in the house?"

Spike says, "I live here. You explain the juice box."

Annoyed Guy immediately steps between Angel, who's holding the baby, and Spike.

"It's alright, Gunn," Angel says, even though he sounds really annoyed about it. "Spike can't hurt him—or anybody."

"Oh, that's fascinating!" says Glasses Girl, who has a nasally Southern accent. She squeezes between Annoyed Guy and Wesley and scurries right up next to Spike, tilting her head at him like he's a soda-and-mentos volcano at the science fair. "I thought Angel was the only vampire with a soul. How did you get yours? Was it that same curse mumbo jumbo? 'Cause if you don't mind me sayin' so, you looked real happy a second ago."

Spike says, "Bloody hell."

"Not so fast, Freddikins," the green demon says. He's wearing a suit made entirely out of purple and yellow sequins, which he straightens out a little when he closes the door behind himself and strides over too. "I think there's a little more than meets the eye here—or should I say less?"

Buffy puts a hand on Spike's hip and tries to steer them both back towards the living room, but he doesn't budge, letting her bump right against his crotch; she pinches his ribs.

"Get it?" the demon asks. "Less? 'Cause he's soulless?"

"Yeah, I am," Spike says defensively. "What of it?"

Glasses Girl (Freddie?) widens her eyes. "Oh, I'm so sorry! I shouldn't have assumed. You know what they say about that and all, it's just that I ain't ever met a soulless vamp who didn't wanna eat me." She takes an anxious step backwards. "You're not gonna eat me, are ya?"

"Happily married," Spike says, flashing the ring. "Thanks, love."

"Damn, Fred," says Gunn. "You can't just ask people if they got souls or not."

"Married," says Angel.

Buffy says, "You have a baby."

Wesley clears his throat and says, "It's lovely to see you again, Buffy. Where might we put the champagne?"

"Hi!" Xander says loudly, intervening from the other side of the foyer. "Welcome to Casa Summers-Maclay-temporarily Jenkins-sometimes Rosenberg. Can I take your alcohol, and also you out of this room?"

The green demon whips around with his eyes narrowed suspiciously, walking over to Xander and tilting his head.

"Hmm," says the demon, sniffing the air. "I've never seen you because Cordelia burned all the photos, but I can tell from the aroma of Axe body spray that you must be Xander."

"Um? Yes?" Xander says.

The green demon slaps him lightly on the cheek and strides into the dining room.

Xander looks around the room, gaping, and demands, "What just happened?"

"Like you don't deserve it," Cordelia says, but she gives him a hug. "Hey, guy. Long time no see."

"Please don't hurt me," says Xander.

"I think Lorne covered it," Cordy says. "You look good."

"So do you," Xander tells her. "Loving the hair."

Anya clears her throat from behind him; he jumps half a foot in the air.

"Uh, Cordy, this is Anya, my—" Xander gulps. "Anya?"

"Ex-fiancee, possibly girlfriend—I haven't decided," Anya says cheerfully, sticking out her hand. "But also, we've met. I granted a wish for you, remember? 'I wish Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale?'"

"That's what you wished for?" Buffy asks.

Cordelia shakes Anya's hand. "Oh, yeah, I totally remember you! Wow, that was crazy, huh? How've you been?"

"Got turned mortal, hated it, came to terms with it, fell in love, got dumped three months before my wedding," Anya says. "You know, the usual."

Cordy smiles broadly and glances at Xander, raising her eyebrows. "Oh, that's nice."

He rubs the back of his neck sheepishly.

"Speaking of weddings—" Cordy turns around to look at Buffy. "I'm so sorry we missed yours, Buffy!"

"Don't take it personally," says Buffy. "So did I."

Fred asks, "What now?"

Buffy says, "Well, on account of the being dead."

The Angel crew stare at her.

"Guys," Buffy says, "we're fake married."

Gunn waves a finger in a circle at her and Spike. "That was fake married?"

"No, they're really dating," Angel says.

Gunn turns to him. "You knew there was gonna be another vamp here and you just let me walk in like a jackass about it?"

Angel mutters, "I try not to think about it."

Fred asks, "So, you're not really married but you are really datin'?"

"Yep," Buffy says. "Pretty much."

"So all of Sunnydale is just like this, huh?" Gunn asks. "White and crazy?"

"Yep," Buffy says again at the same time Spike says, "Overwhelmingly, yeah."

Gunn asks, "Y'all got beer?"

"In the kitchen," Xander says. "I'll show you."

Wesley says, "I wouldn't turn down a glass of wine, if you have any, perchance."

"Bro," Gunn says, planting a hand between his shoulder blades and steering him to follow Xander. "Just be normal for once, okay? Like for one night."

"So," Angel says awkwardly, still holding the literal human baby. "Fake… married?"

Buffy feels a little lightheaded. She says, "Tax benefits."

"What?" asks Angel.

Spike says, "I needed to be able to take care of Dawn—school, doc visits, the like—and mind the house. Was Willow's idea, really."

Buffy looks at him, shifting away a little. "It was?"

"And I thought you were…" Spike clenches his jaw, looking down. "Didn't think you'd come back. And I knew I'd never…"

Someone pops a bottle of champagne early in the dining room. Spike turns towards the sound, big golden eyes refocusing, and never finishes the sentence.

"Aww, that's kinda romantic," says Fred. 

"Is it?" Angel asks tightly.

Spike clears his throat and gestures at Angel, his shoulders rolling back a little. "What's all this, then? You pull the tot out of the dumpster?"

"He's mine," Angel says.

"Well, yeah, but he had to come from somewhere," Spike says. "In case you've forgotten, we can't make little puppies, Peaches."

Angel says, "Yeah, that's what I thought, too."

A flutter of panic makes Buffy's throat go tight. 

"Oh, don't worry," Cordy tells her. "We're pretty sure it was some kinda weird, cosmic one-time thing. The Powers That Be kinda have a sense of humor."

"The what that who?" Buffy asks faintly.

Spike's body is a big line of tension. He says, "Sorry, the hardest part of all this is believin' you found another woman to take a tumble with."

"Well, not really," Cordelia says. "It was just Darla again."

Buffy's brain does a really fun somersault in her skull. She's starting to regret the bite on her thigh, even though she was sure Spike didn't take that much. Did he overdo it on accident or something?

She grabs his hand when the wave of woozy hits.

"Darla's alive?" Spike asks quietly, low and dangerous.

"She… she was," Angel says. "Uh, but she's—she's… gone again."

Spike's voice cracks a little. "What happened?"

"It's—a long story," Angel hedges.

"Well, that's the thing about you and me, Angelus," Spike snarks. "We live a bloody long time, so I think you can fucking spare it."

Angel says, "Look, it's—"

"Vampire baby," Buffy says suddenly.

The others look at her.

"Xander!" Buffy shouts.

"What?" he calls from the kitchen.

"Vampire baby!"

"No thanks! Try again tomorrow!"

Angel says, "Wolfram and Hart brought her back as a human to—"

Giles comes skittering into the room like an awkward puppy. "Did you say a vampire baby? Did you mean it?"

"For fuck's sake," says Angel.

"Angel knocked up Darla," Spike tells Giles.

Giles's eyes widen. "Darla's alive?"

Buffy asks, "Cordy, want champagne?"

"God, yes," she answers. "C'mon, Fred."

Buffy squeezes Spike's hand once before leading the girls into the dining room.

 

~*~

 

An hour or so later, the living room has been taken over by a horde of teenage girls and MTV's New Year's Eve show is blasting on the TV. Most of the adults are in the backyard, where Lorne is doing some party trick where if you sing for him he can tell your destiny or something stupid like that.

Buffy's got so much destiny she's giving it away, so she's nursing a Malibu cranberry in the basement.

The door creaks open; Angel coughs dramatically when he walks down the steps, then hesitates when he sees her flopped in the bean bag chair.

"Uh, hey," he says. "Are you guys running an illegal tobacco operation down here or something?"

Buffy rolls her eyes. "Spike. You get used to it."

"Pretty sure that's not true." Angel takes another step, the wobbly stair creaking under his weight. "Uh, want some company?"

"Are you hiding from the party?" Buffy asks. "You can only sit in the cigarette emporium if you're hiding from the party."

Angel sits across from her on the ground, leaning up against the washing machine with a beer in his hand. "I'm always hiding from the party."

Buffy's smile is kinda nostalgic.

"Didn't used to be your speed, though," he comments.

Buffy taps her fingers on her glass. "Sometimes I'm… not so much with the loud, still."

"I get that," Angel says, and goes quiet.

Buffy takes a sip of her drink. She listens to the faint sound of Xander falsetto-ing Faith Hill leaking through the open basement windows.

"... So," she says. "Darla."

Angel says, "In my defense—"

Buffy waits.

He peels the label off his beer bottle.

Buffy says, "I'm sorry about, you know, how you found out about stuff. Um, no offense, but I kinda assumed you weren't coming."

Angel mutters, "Cordy told me we were going grocery shopping."

"What?" asks Buffy.

"Cordy told me—"

"Oh my God." Buffy covers her mouth and snickers. "Did you clue in before or after you hit the highway?"

Angel says, "I fell asleep, okay? I don't get a lot of shuteye these days."

"God," Buffy says again, her laughter dying down. "Angel, you're a dad."

"You're married," he reminds her. "Sort of."

Buffy quirks her lips. "Hey, look at us! If you put us together we've got that normal life we always wanted."

"Ha," Angel says. "Yeah."

"... Do you like it?" Buffy asks. "Being a dad."

"Well, I'm fucking terrified all the time and very, very broke," Angel says. "But yeah, I really do. He's my—he's everything, you know?"

Buffy thinks about Dawn, probably dancing around the living room upstairs. 

"Yeah," she says. "I know."

Angel asks, "Do you… like being married?"

Buffy looks down at her drink. "I love Spike."

"That part's been pretty clear," Angel says.

"It's just, you know…" Buffy bites her lip. "When you come back from being gone?"

"Things are different," Angel says. "The world didn't wait for you."

Buffy nods quietly.

"Do you resent him for it?" he asks.

"No," Buffy says. "I… he said he wouldn't have done it, if he'd known—I mean, they didn't even tell him they were trying to bring me back?"

Angel sounds surprised. "Really?"

"I guess maybe Willow thought he—" Buffy's stomach turns. "He couldn't take it, or something. You know, if it didn't work."

"I'm sure Spike took that well," Angel says drily.

Buffy doesn't say anything.

Angel says, "I noticed she isn't here."

Buffy's throat tightens a little. "We're, um, not big with the talking, these days."

"I'm sorry," Angel tells her. "Did… what happened?"

"Um, you know Tara?" Buffy asks.

"Yeah," Angel says. "We've met a couple times."

Buffy says, "Well, they—they broke up, and, um, Spike wanted Tara to stay here and I wanted Willow, but Willow got so mad that Spike picked Tara that she left anyway. And I guess she's, like, mad at me by extension now. I don't really get it."

"What do you mean?" Angel asks.

"I mean, she said some stuff about Spike that was—" Buffy's grip tightens on her glass. "It was so cruel, Angel. I—I've never heard her talk like that about anyone. Obviously I was gonna defend him."

"Sure," Angel says.

Buffy looks at him, eyes narrowed. "What?"

"Nothing," says Angel.

"What?" says Buffy.

"It's just—I kinda get where she's coming from," Angel says.

Buffy straightens her spine and snaps, "You don't even know what she—"

"No, I know," Angel says. "I didn't mean that. I just mean, uh, you and Spike are pretty intense."

"We are?" Buffy asks.

Angel looks at her flatly.

"Okay," Buffy says defensively. "Comments have been made. The words 'soul-bonded' were recently used, which is kinda ironic if you think about it." She pauses. "That's not a thing, is it?"

"I don't say, 'that's not a thing,' anymore," Angel says. "But I've never heard of it."

Buffy crosses her arms, her drink digging into her tricep a little. "Okay, so we're camping or whatever, so what?"

"What?" asks Angel.

"Intense, in tents?" Buffy asks. "C'mon, nothin'?"

Angel is unimpressed.

Buffy sips her drink.

"Anyway," says Angel. "Maybe it feels hard to get in edgewise."

"I've got edges!" Buffy protests. "I'm edgy. Land of the edge."

Angel says, "All I'm saying is, I remember when you guys were young and she was the first person you told everything to. That's not true anymore, is it?"

Buffy's glass feels heavier than it did a second ago. She looks down into it, the translucent-y blood red that matches the dress and the bite on her thigh, and feels so sad for a second that she almost can't breathe.

"No," she admits. "It's really not."

And, God, she wonders. Were we ever young?

Buffy sits up abruptly, leaning over to give Angel a quick hug, and runs up the stairs.

"Uh, bye?" he calls after her.

She waves as the door swings shut behind her.

 

~*~

 

"Um, hey, Wil, it's me. Um, first of all, don't get mad at Xander—I totally had to beat him up to get your number. And I'm sorry for bugging you—I know you don't really wanna talk to me right now, and I'm supposed to be doing the cat thing. 

"But the thing is that I miss you so much, okay? And tonight has been so crazy—oh my God, Angel and everyone are here and you will not believe what's been happening in LA—and I could really use my best friend right now. And I think maybe you needed me, too, and I kind of messed it up big time, so… 

"Um, I just wanted you to know that the door's unlocked, and we're gonna be here all night. So if you wanted to come—

"I'd… really like it if you came."

 

~*~

 

Buffy hangs up the phone. She blows a stream of air out through her nose and twirls the cord around her finger before taking a step away. The kitchen door is open and there's laughter out on the back porch.

Spike is in the kitten room, wiggling a feather duster for Rupert and Boots with one hand and holding baby Connor in his other arm. His hair is still all rumpled from their quickie earlier and his duster is nowhere in sight. One of the cats is biting at his bare toes.

"Okay," Buffy says, "this is so not fair."

He looks up at her with this smile that's all sweet and confused, like he's got no idea what he looks like right now (which he doesn't, because mirrors) and Buffy's chest swells up so much that she kinda wants to cry.

She takes the baby from him instead, cradling him carefully in both arms and settling into Spike's lap.

"I can't believe you convinced Angel to hand him over," she says, smiling and booping Connor on the nose. 

"Didn't," says Spike. "Took 'im off Fred."

"Ah," Buffy says.

"Nice bird," Spike says. "Reminds me of Red back in the day."

Buffy lays her head on his shoulder. "Yeah."

"Still hasn't showed, has she?" Spike asks.

"No." Buffy bites her lip. "I… kinda bullied Xander into letting me call her, but I just left a message."

Spike kisses the top of her head.

"Are you okay?" she asks suddenly, looking at the baby's little scrunched up face.

"No," he says. "Not really."

She tilts her head up to look at him. "Wanna talk about it?"

Spike says, "Pretty sure you don't wanna hear it."

Buffy frowns. She shifts her hold on Connor and reaches up to touch Spike's cheek. "I can handle it."

Spike clenches his jaw, wrapping both arms around her middle and rubbing his thumb over his skull ring.

"She was human when they brought her back," he says. "And then she was dying, and she wanted Angel to turn her 'cept he wouldn't, and so they—the ones who brought 'er back—brought Dru in to do it."

Buffy goes really still. "Drusilla was in California?"

"Proper family reunion, they had," Spike says bitterly. "Guess my invitation got lost in the mail."

Something crawls up Buffy's spine. She asks, "When was this?"

"Figure it must've been a year or so ago," Spike says. "Maybe a little less. Angelus said they tore up the town a while—don't know what happened with Dru after that."

"Spike," Buffy says. "The train. With all those people?"

He looks at her, his eyes widening a little.

"Wasn't that—" Buffy's throat hurts. "It was right before Mom."

They never figured out what happened; it seemed so small, next to a handpicked casket.

"Yeah," Spike says quietly. "She could do that. My Dru, she could do it easy."

Buffy shakes her head. "She was here. She…"

"Didn't come for me," Spike says. His eyes are hard and shiny, staring over the room. "She didn't even…"

Buffy's throat hurts. She asks, "What would you've done?"

Spike turns to her suddenly, his hand cupping the side of her face so urgently that it would've made sense to flinch, if she still did that for him.

"Don't, love," he begs. "Don't think that for a second."

Buffy rasps, "But you—"

"It's you, Buffy," Spike tells her. "Every time, it's you."

She readjusts the baby in her arms, looking down guiltily.

"I just…" Spike touches his forehead to her temple. "Still just hurts, don't it? Knowing she… d'you think she ever loved me?"

"Maybe she knew," Buffy says.

Spike pulls away to look at her.

"Maybe she—knew you'd pick me," Buffy tells him. She smiles a little saying it, and hates herself for it. He still looks so sad. "And that's why… um, if I were her, I mean, and I—I knew it wouldn't be me, I don't think I could…"

("Who is she?" she asked, and it felt like she was still in the ground. Like he should fold the dirt back over her sad little bones.)

"I'm sorry," she says, when he doesn't answer.

Spike says, "So Darla turned again, and it's after that he shagged her."

"But he stayed all soul-having," Buffy says. "Didn't he?"

"Yeah," says Spike. "Sounded that way."

"Wow," Buffy says softly, ruefully. "Call a girl flattered."

Baby Connor fusses in her arms. It's been a long time since she's held a baby—since Dawn; she thinks about that now, letting him grasp her pinky in his little hand.

"She didn't want the pregnancy," Spike says quietly. "Tried everything she could, but the sodding Powers had other ideas."

Buffy frowns, her stomach turning.

"And then she—" 

Spike cuts off. She feels him coiled underneath her, all this tension in his body, and imagines him with a bloody lip.

Buffy gets up and buckles Connor into his baby carrier, which is sitting just in arm's reach. She rearranges them in the chair when she sits down again, carding his fingers through his hair with his face tucked against her neck.

"She died in an alley," Spike says, finally, like there's something thin and sharp clogging his throat. "It's always an alley, you know. What is it about 'em, you think?"

"I don't know," Buffy says softly.

"She thought she couldn't love her own son," Spike says. "Not without a soul. That's what she told Angel when she did it."

Oh. Oh, God.

Buffy says, "I'm so sorry."

"I don't understand what it's all bloody for," Spike tells her, his voice cracking. "She comes back just to die again? To—to be some pawn in a sodding game, so Angelus can have his perfect fucking destiny and his perfect fucking life and not even fucking enjoy it."

Buffy closes her eyes and holds him closer.

"Didn't even get to say goodbye." Spike shudders, breathing in. "I could've told her. Don't think she ever cared for me like I did her, but I could've told her there's still love in it."

"I know," Buffy says gently, her voice wet, her fingers as good as she can make them in his sweet, ruined hair. "You've got so much of it, honey. I know."

"It didn't hurt like this last time," he says. "Fuck, it didn't hurt like this."

Buffy shushes him soothingly, pressing her lips to his head. She holds him and thinks about hospitals, and blood, and a bunch of girls squealing excitedly over MTV. She thinks about her Aunt Darlene always wanting just a little more time.

"You were out of practice," she says.

He sobs, or maybe laughs.

They stay like that for a long time.

Buffy asks, "Do you want a baby?"

Spike tips his nose against her throat. "Pretty sure Angelus ain't putting 'im up for sale."

"Spike," she says.

He lifts his head, looking at her with his eyes a little red. "Never let myself think about it."

Buffy picks at the sequins on her dress, fighting the urge to flick them off like shiny-backed beetles on baby roses.

"Wanted to belong somewhere, I guess," Spike says. "Wanted a family. 'S little odd-shaped, but I got myself one now."

Buffy looks at him, her eyes suddenly big and earnest from all the fear in her throat.

"Is it a good one?" she asks.

Spike smiles, all sad and warm.

"Yeah, Slayer." His knuckles brush the hair from her face. "It's a good one."

She presses their foreheads together with a tiny sigh.

It hurts a little. Nothing perfect, and everything. But that's okay.

"What did you mean earlier?" Buffy asks. "When you said, um, when I was gone, you'd never…?"

Spike hums and presses a little kiss behind her ear.

"It's okay," she says. "You can say."

Spike looks at her again, stroking a hand absently along her cheek, and says, "Knew I'd never love anybody like I did you. Knew you were the only one I'd—"

He looks at their hands.

Buffy looks at them too.

She says, "I don't know what to do when you say that."

"It's alright," he tells her. His thumb runs over the glittering ruby. "See, I think I was learning something, while you were away. Can I tell you what it was?"

Buffy whispers, "Okay."

"It broke me, losing you," Spike says. "Shattered me into what felt like nothing. Didn't know how I'd survive it. I told you that."

Buffy's voice is tiny. "I know."

"But I'd made a promise, you know." Spike tips up her chin with the edge of a finger, and he's smiling just barely at her. "And it turned out I had a whole mess of people trying to help me keep it. Couldn't see it much, at the time, but it's getting a little clearer now."

Buffy smiles a little too.

"I won't love anyone like I love you," Spike tells her. "But I'll love. Promise you I won't lose that again."

"Thank you," Buffy whispers. 

She kisses him, leaning into his touch until the achy feelings go away and all that's left is wanting to touch his mouth again, a little longer, with more teeth. His hand is high on her thigh with the sequins scraping against his palm. Her fingers slip up under his shirt.

Someone clears their throat in the doorway.

Buffy turns around: Giles is standing on the other side of the baby gate, holding the gift bag in his hand and looking like he really wishes he could be cleaning his glasses.

"Buffy," he says. "Might I speak with you?"

"Um, yeah." Buffy tugs her skirt back down, cheeks burning, as she stands. "What's up?"

Someone in the living room shrieks with laughter.

"Outside, perhaps?" Giles suggests.

There's still a crowd in the back, so they sit on opposite ends of the porch swing with the bag in between them. Buffy tucks her legs under herself and rubs at her arms.

"You're being extra Giles-y tonight," she says, frowning at his Britishly unhappy face. "What's up?"

"Ah, well, um—" Giles clears his throat. "Perhaps you should—" 

He nudges the bag towards her.

Buffy's eyebrow furrow deepens. She sticks her hand between the tufts of tissue paper and pulls out a plastic-wrapped box, turning it over in her hands with a jolt.

It's a Nokia cellphone. Her mouth feels all dry. There's two more just like it in the bag.

"Giles, this—this is," she stammers. "It's too much. Um, we—we can't—we can't afford this, um, you've gotta—you pay every month, and we—"

"I know," he says softly. "The bill will be under my name. You won't pay a thing."

Buffy's fingers slip against the shiny plastic. 

"There's one for each of you," Giles tells her. "I—I thought, w-well. Dawn is getting older, and—and you both work, in a manner of speaking, and it's—"

Buffy blinks to keep her vision from going all blurry.

"It's important," Giles finishes. "To stay connected."

"Aww, Giles," Buffy says, a smile stretching across her face. "Look at you, with the modern. Miss Calendar would be proud."

"Yes." Giles smiles sadly, looking out over the empty yard. "Yes, I believe she would."

They're quiet for a moment; Buffy fidgets with her engagement ring, running her thumb over the stone.

Giles says, "There's… something else." 

Buffy peeks into the gift bag. "Is there a plumber in here? 'Cause let me tell you, I'm like one leaky pipe away from letting Spike—"

"I beg you not to finish that sentence," says Giles.

She puts the bag down.

"Buffy, I…" Giles takes his glasses off. "There's no easy way to say this." He looks at her, all sad and squinty. "I'm going back to England."

"You're—" Buffy's own voice sounds far away. "You're going back?"

Giles says, "Yes. And I—"

"For how long?" Buffy asks. "Like—like a week? Like a couple weeks or something?"

Giles looks at his glasses.

"Oh," she says.

He cleans them on his shirt.

"So that's what this is?" Buffy asks, moving the Nokia box off her lap. "Just—just some light bribery to make up for the fact that you're abandoning us?"

"Aban—Buffy, that's not what I—"

"Well, these things don't work internationally, you know," Buffy says, feeling her voice go up in pitch. "So we're not really staying connected to you."

Giles says, "I—I know that, but there is the landline, or—or email, I suppose, and—"

"Did I do something?" Buffy asks wetly.

Giles puts his glasses back on, resting his hand on top of hers. "Buffy, no."

"Then why?" She takes her hand away. "Why are you doing this?"

"I'm not needed here anymore," Giles tells her. "Spike is a more competent sparring partner than I could ever be. Anya's knowledge of the—the supernatural is unparalleled. And most importantly, you… Buffy, the incredible girl you were, the woman you've become—I'm not sure that you ever really needed a Watcher. That you ever needed…"

"But you're Giles," Buffy says. She swallows thickly. "I'm always gonna need one of those."

Giles says, "And I'm terribly lonely."

Buffy blinks at him; her bottom lip starts to wobble.

"I'm so sorry," he says, that way he does when he's trying extra hard to be kind. "I never want to burden you with such things, my dear, but it's the truth. I think I've been lonely for quite a while."

Buffy's chest hurts. She feels like she's seven years old, like she's Alice in Wonderland holding a little cake and all of a sudden the world is so big and terrible again. She asks, "We're not enough?"

"You are wonderful," Giles says firmly. "Buffy, having you in my life has brought me indescribable joy—but you have your own life, now. Your own family to think of. And I need—" 

He glances up at the stars like they're on his side.

"I tried to build a life here," he tells her, or maybe just the sky. His voice is old and careful, like when a wobbly gray dog curls up on a bed. "But I lost Jenny, and I… after that, I'm not sure that I ever quite…"

"There's no one like her?" Buffy asks quietly.

"No," he says, looking at her again. "I don't suppose there is."

Buffy breathes around the wobble in her throat. She thinks about Spike sobbing against her stomach, thinks about a cold hand in his hair and making love so prettily it hurts and you have to cry, just so your whole body gets to help, and getting bruises on her knees from sleeping next to her mother's slipcovered couch.

"You were gonna walk me down the aisle," she says.

"There are a great many things I wish I could have done," he tells her. "If life had been a little kinder."

Buffy says, "I don't want you to be alone."

Giles makes a soft, light sound. "I don't believe I will be."

"Good." Buffy looks at him—really looks. His wrinkles and the scar on his forehead and the little hole in his ear where sometimes an earring goes, and when was the last time she heard him play guitar? Maybe the music will be better in England. "I think that's good."

Giles says softly, "Thank you."

Buffy picks up one of the boxes again, tracing a finger along one edge. "Will you visit?"

"Undoubtedly," he says. 

She smiles. "We'll get a better couch."

"As long as I can still have the pretty princess sheets," Giles jokes.

Buffy laughs—a short surprised one that hurts her chest, and then she's tucking her head between her knees with the hem of her dress digging into her thighs. "I'm sorry."

"No, it's—" She can feel his hand hovering between her shoulder blades. "It's quite alright."

Buffy shakes her head, which hurts her temples, and takes a ragged breath.

"You'll be fine without me, my dear," Giles says gently. "You've been so brave."

Are you saying it for me or for you? she wonders, and digs her fingernails into her shins. 

"I would that things were different," Giles tells her. "I'm sorry I can't give back what you gave me."

She lifts her head, her cheeks barely damp. "Do you love me?" 

Giles blinks at her. "I… what?"

"Giles, I love you," says Buffy. "I love you. Can you say it back?"

They all saw her body, didn't they?

What kind of face did he make then?

"Can you?" she asks again.

Giles wets his bottom lip. "Buffy, I…"

"It's okay." She stands up, wrapping her arms around herself, her little heels wobbling as she gets her footing. "Um, it's okay. I'll—"

"Yes," he says, and her fingers curl around her elbow. "Yes, I do. Very much, and I pray to anything that might be up there that you have known that before this moment."

Buffy stares through the neighbor's lit-up windows.

"I'm so sorry," he says.

It seems so stupid now. Like she's some dumb little girl who needs it all written out, but maybe she is. Didn't she used to be young?

"Did you know love is, like, the oldest thing there is?" Buffy asks.

"I…" Giles stands up too. "I'm not sure I follow."

Buffy turns to him, feeling small and earnest. "The vision guide told me. They said love is older than them—it's, like, older than the world. I—I'm not really sure how that works, but I guess there was something before all of this."

Maybe there'll be something after.

"That's… rather lovely, actually," Giles says.

"I guess people loved each other before they even knew there was a word for it," Buffy says.

Giles smiles sadly. "Yes, I suppose they must have. But it's still nice to hear, isn't it?"

"Yeah," she says quietly.

Giles pulls her into a hug. 

"I love you, Buffy," he says. "I'll see you soon."

She watches him walk down the drive, watches him carefully buckle his seatbelt and turn on the headlights with his glasses glinting strangely. 

She thinks, Liar, but she isn't sure why.

 

~*~

 

Buffy sits on the porch for a while. She keeps meaning to go back inside—to hang out with Tara or check on Dawn or maybe drag Spike into a room upstairs (because he's been good, she knows he has), but then the breeze picks up a little or she rocks the swing a little and she forgets.

Fred and Gunn stumble out the front door, holding hands and laughing.

"Oh, gosh, we're sorry!" Fred says earnestly, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "We didn't think anybody'd be out here."

Buffy smiles, tucking Giles's present back into the bag and standing smoothly. "That's okay. You guys should sit—it's a good spot."

"Oh," Fred says breathlessly. "It's been years since I've had me a good porch swing."

Gunn does some kind of fancy bow and says, "Your chariot awaits, Lady Winifred."

"Are you sure?" Fred asks Buffy. "We don't wanna boot ya."

Buffy says, "Yeah—I should get a little more party in before we run outta year. Have you guys seen my boyfriend?"

"I think he's in the living room," Gunn answers. "It's pretty much a war zone in there."

"Guess I better give him some backup," Buffy says. "Thanks for the intel."

Fred and Gunn wave to her as she heads back inside. Sure enough, Spike is surrounded by Dawn and all her friends on the living room floor with what looks like every bottle of nail polish owned by anyone in the whole house displayed on the coffee table. He's painting a lime green french manicure on Janice.

Buffy's heart swells. She plops down next to him and says, "Hey."

"Hi, love," Spike says, then does a double take at her face. "You alright?"

"Jeez, can't get away with anything around here," Buffy says lightly. She kisses him on the cheek. "I'll tell you later."

He hums, kissing her temple in exchange, and then goes back to the mani.

Buffy watches his hands work; she knows he used to do this for Drusilla all the time, and sometimes Darla, too. He knows how to do pretty makeup and what brands of lipstick won't smear against someone's throat and over a century's worth of fancy hairstyles, and it's all about loving somebody. 

She tears up a little, resting her cheek gently against his arm, and asks, "Will you do me next?"

Spike says, "'Course, baby," and kisses the top of her head.

"Wait, seriously?" one of the girls asks. "She gets to cut in line just because you're married?"

"Well, yeah," says Spike. He dips the brush back in the bottle of polish, carefully swirling it around. "Pretty standard perk."

Dawn says, "They're really gross. You get used to it."

"I think it's cute," says Rachel.

"Woah now," Buffy says, raising an eyebrow at the girl when she makes a classic annoyed teenager face. "I didn't know there was a whole system going on. I can wait."

Spike asks, "You sure?"

"Yeah," Buffy says. "I've gotta take my old polish off anyway—Dawn, pass me the cotton balls?"

Dawn rolls her eyes and hands them over.

 

~*~

 

It's like half an hour before midnight. Buffy is blowing on her chunky pink glitter nails, trying to get them to dry faster so Spike can do the top coat, and listening to Charity and Janice argue about whether Brad or Tom is hotter. The room smells like acetone and there's a dull headache behind Buffy's eyes, but she's happy.

The front door opens. Willow is standing in the foyer.

The rest of the room sounds like it's underwater. Willow's hair is wet, like she just took a shower, and she hasn't cut it since Buffy last saw her. She's wearing a little makeup and an old shirt. Her arm is in a sling.

Buffy locks eyes with her, feeling wide-eyed and desperate and really aware of her hand on Spike's knee. She smiles a little anyway.

Willow smiles back.

"Willow!" Xander shouts, sweeping her up into a hug from the other direction. "You made it!"

Spike says, "Breathe, love," in Buffy's ear.

Her chest loosens, watching Willow get swept up in the mob of hey, how've you been? from the LA and Cleveland crowds, then goes all funny and sharp again—in time with the breathing thing, maybe. 

"Here," Spike says, cradling her hand in his. "We'll finish these quick, yeah?"

Faintly, Buffy says, "Take your time."

He kisses the back of her hand, then each of her knuckles, carefully avoiding her nails. She closes her eyes and nuzzles his cheek.

"Told you," Dawn whispers to someone. "Gross."

 

~*~

 

Willow is sitting in the kitten room with her back to the wall, watching the cats run around playing with each other and exploring. She looks up when Buffy steps over the baby gate and asks, "Um, can I sit with you?"

"Sure," Willow says, patting the seat next to her. "It's your house."

Buffy winces.

"Oh!" Willow makes her regret face. "That's—that came out really wrong, I mean—" She hides behind her good hand. "Bad. Bad words."

Buffy relaxes a little, coming to sit cross-legged with a few inches between them. "It's okay."

Willow rests her hand in her lap, drumming her fingers on her thigh.

"So, um, Xander told me there were cats," she says. "But I guess I didn't really expect…"

"Cats?" Buffy says.

Willow says, "It's a lot of cats."

Buffy laughs softly. "It's kinda a funny story. Or, um—maybe you don't wanna—"

"Did Spike win 'em at poker?" Willow asks.

"'Win' isn't the word I'd use," Buffy says.

Willow frowns at her.

"We kinda, um, stole them?" Buffy admits.

Willow gasps. "Buffy!"

"I was drunk," Buffy says defensively, laughing a little. "And the other demons were gonna eat them!"

"You're incorrigible," says Willow.

Buffy quirks her lips. "I'll take your word for it."

It gets quiet again. Buffy slouches against the wall.

"... What're their names?" Willow asks.

Buffy sits up excitedly. "Okay, so the fat black one is PlayStation—Xander named her."

"Of course," Willow says seriously.

"Um, and the tabby is Boots—she's Dawn's." Buffy snags a passing kitten. "This is Henrietta—" She waves Henrietta's paw in the air. "And that orange one is Rupert. Spike named him."

"Why Rupert?" Willow asks, sounding skeptical.

Rupert pounces for a jingle ball; he slams into the wall instead and lets out a pitiful meow.

Buffy asks, "You don't see the resemblance?"

Willow giggles. She leans over and grabs the last kitten, holding her against her chest. "What about this cutie?"

"Um, we've just been calling her Miss Kitty," Buffy says. "But… I guess she doesn't really have a name."

Miss Kitty wriggles out of Willow's hold and drops gracefully to the ground, licking her paw and grooming her ears.

"How come?" Willow asks.

"Well, she—she's really smart," Buffy says. "Um, I think she's probably the smartest one. And she's really sweet, too. She—she keeps me company a lot when I'm in here, and I guess I just… I dunno."

Willow hums and scritches under Miss Kitty's chin.

"I thought maybe you'd know what to call her," Buffy says quietly.

"Oh," Willow says. "Buffy—"

"I'm really glad you came."

"—I'm so sorry."

Buffy looks up, her chest twisting. "What?"

"I'm so sorry for everything," Willow says, and all of a sudden her eyes are wet and sad. "For—for that horrible stuff I said, and what I did a-and almost did, I just—can you forgive me?"

"Wil, no, it's—I mean, of course." Buffy reaches for her hand. "I'm sorry too. You were hurting, and I didn't see it. I should've helped you."

"You were kinda busy," Willow points out. "You know, with the coming back to life and stuff? I was so selfish about it."

Buffy shakes her head. "You're my best friend, and I was so wrapped up in my own stuff. I made you—I made you think you were alone."

"Buffy, I'm the one who left," Willow says. "And after the stuff I said, I—it wasn't okay. None of that was okay."

"But I don't mean then," Buffy says. "I—I mean, all the time before it. You and Tara… and with the magic, it didn't all just happen overnight, did it? You were hurting so much and you didn't feel like you could talk to me."

"I don't think I was ready," Willow says.

Buffy presses her lips together, curling her fingers tighter around Willow's hand, and asks, "Ready for what?"

"Because… because if I—" Willow's voice wobbles. "If I told you what was happening… if I said I—I needed help, then—" She looks at Buffy desperately. "Then it was real. It was really happening."

("Am I real?" Buffy asked.)

Buffy's stomach feels heavy and hollow, this big weight with walls that are gonna collapse on themselves.

"Wil," she asks. "Do you need help?"

Willow's face is buried in the crook of Buffy's neck. She's gasping violently for air, these big wheezing sobs moving through her little body, and she wore overalls and tartan dresses and drank Shirley Temples at the Bronze when they were kids. 

They were just kids and they didn't know any of it yet, how it would all go, and would she do it all again if Buffy asked her?

"Yes," she sobs, her fingernails scraping through Buffy's slutty sequin dress. "Yes, Buffy, please—please help me. I need help, I need help. I'm so scared."

Buffy cards her fingers through her hair and lets warm tears roll down her own cheeks too. "Yeah, Wil. I'll help you."

In the living room, the minute countdown starts; Dawn and her friends all cheer. The back door creaks open and their friends' voices carry their bodies inside to get the champagne.

This year—this awful, shitty, fucked up year—is finally dying.

It hurts somewhere in Buffy's stupid heart. This panic, this grief, this weight on her left wrist. The thing that literally killed her is slipping away and she's still crying on the floor, getting carpet burn. 

"Ten! Nine! Eight!"

Willow lifts her head. "Hey, what're you doing? You've gotta go get your kiss."

"Seven! Six! Five!"

There's a commotion in the dining room.

"I'll be okay, Buffy," Willow says. "Really."

"Four! Three! Two!"

Buffy says, "I know," and brushes her lips against her best friend's tearstained cheek.

"Happy New Year!"

Willow smiles like she hasn't really done it in years. 

Xander crashes straight through the baby gate, Spike hot on his heels.

"'Ello, love," Spike says cheerfully, and takes Xander's face in both hands. "Sorry for this, provin' a point."

He plants a smacking kiss right on Xander's mouth. There might be a little tongue.

Xander flails for a second, then does what any sane person being kissed by Spike would do: try to kiss back.

Spike pulls away, grinning wickedly and leaving Xander gaping at him.

Buffy raises an eyebrow at them and helps Willow to her feet. "And the point we're making is?"

"Well," says Spike, "he bet me I wouldn't."

Xander makes a non-English noise. Possibly nonhuman. He waves his hands in a circle in Buffy's general direction.

Buffy shrugs. "Your first mistake was playing gay chicken with Spike."

"Gay?" says Xander.

"Take your time, Harris," says Spike. He nods at Willow, his eyes dropping to her arm. "Hey, Red. Somethin' take a chunk outta ya?"

Willow says, "I took a bigger chunk back."

"Atta girl," says Spike, putting his hands on Buffy's hips when she wraps her arms around his neck. "Good t'have you back."

"... Thanks," Willow says.

Buffy pushes up onto her toes, touching their foreheads together. "Hi, honey. Happy New Year."

"And good riddance," Spike murmurs, brushing their mouths together. "Champagne?"

"Happy bubbles," Buffy agrees. 

They link their hands together and head for the dining room, pausing to fix the baby gate and snag an escaping Henrietta.

"Gay," Xander repeats, looking at Willow.

"Yes I am, sweetie," Willow says, patting his back. "Let's get you a nice glass a'juice."

Anya marches up to Spike, wearing the headband Giles came in with and holding a glass of champagne, and demands, "Did you kiss my boyfriend?"

Spike raises his eyebrows at her. "Oh, now he's your boyfriend, is he?"

"Glad to see nothing's changed around here," Riley says. He pats Forrest on the back of the shoulder. "We're heading to the hotel. Thanks for having us, Buffy."

Buffy hugs the three commandos goodbye. "Happy New Year, guys."

Angel comes in from the kitchen, holding baby Connor and a diaper bag in the other hand. Cordy and Wes are with him. 

"Hey," he says, "we're gonna go too. Unless you want some help cleaning up?"

Buffy smiles. "I think we've got it covered. Thanks, though."

"Okay." Angel cranes his neck over the crowd. "Uh, have you seen the rest of us?"

Anya says, "They're watching the ball drop."

"Thanks," says Angel. "Uh, Happy New Year, guys."

Cordy hugs Buffy tightly. "You take care, okay?"

"You too," Buffy tells her.

The LA crew reunites and makes for the door.

"Angelus," Spike says.

Angel turns around, his eyes a little wide with surprise. His hand is cradling the back of Connor's head.

Spike is really quiet for a long second; Buffy runs a hand along the small of his back.

"Drive safe," he says, barely audible over all the background chatter, something tight and almost sad in his voice.

Angel says, "I will."

And then they're gone. 

The television is still playing in the living room, where Tara, Dawn, and the girls are still watching MTV. Buffy looks around the dining room, which is covered with fallen decorations and abandoned drink glasses. Someone left behind a cardigan.

"So," Xander says, rubbing his hands together. "Scooby cleanup crew?"

"Oh," Spike says sarcastically, tugging a 2002 banner down from the doorway. "Now he can talk."

Buffy rolls her eyes and grabs an empty champagne bottle off the table.

 

~*~

 

There's the tiniest bit of light creeping into the sky, chasing away the shyer stars and doing nothing to the moon, which is still winking at Buffy like they're in on a joke. The shingles are scraping against her stolen leather duster and the insides of her palms, and her bare feet where they're perched on the slopey part of the roof.

Spike's head pops up over the rain gutter.

"This's new," he says. "Can't sleep, love?"

Buffy smiles and scoots over, even though there's plenty of room already. "Just thinkin'."

Spike climbs the rest of the way out of their bedroom window and up to the top of the roof with her. He's wearing a dark gray shirt and darker sweatpants, dressed down after the party. 

"Long night," he says, kissing her temple. "Thoughts'll be there in the morning."

"Mm." Buffy snuggles up next to him. "It feels important to do tonight. I dunno why."

"Old year thoughts?" Spike teases.

Buffy looks out over the neighborhood. "Maybe."

"Make any resolutions?" Spike asks.

Buffy smiles a little, curling her fingers in his soft t-shirt. "Nah. You?"

"Just one," he says, and reaches into her pocket.

Buffy frowns, watching him pull out a thick folded piece of paper. "Origami?"

Spike huffs out a laugh and says, "Not quite."

"I want a crane," says Buffy.

Spike unfolds the paper, spreading it out at their feet. 

"Ooh, a map," Buffy says, leaning closer. "With… buried treasure?"

"Getting warmer," Spike says.

Buffy tilts her head curiously. "What's in Africa?"

"My soul," says Spike.

(They spent last New Year's at the Bronze. She kissed him through the whole countdown, and after, and after, and after.)

"Or, a way to get it back, anyway," he says. "Anya and Tara and me, we've been looking. Pretty sure it's the real deal—no strings attached."

(He fucked her right there on the balcony and she snapped the railing under her hands, it felt so good, and when they got home the kitchen was a mess because Mom hadn't been feeling well and he did all the dishes before they fell asleep.)

"I've been thinking… a long time. Since the chip, since what you said at Halloween." Spike clears his throat. "Hell, since—from the beginning, maybe, even if I'd never say it. That—that maybe it'd be better for you. I'd be better, if…"

(She still hasn't bought him flowers.)

Buffy tells him, "I don't know what to say."

"You don't have to say anything," Spike answers. "Buffy, I—"

"No, I do," she says. She looks at him wide-eyed. "Um, or, I—I mean, I wanna. Say something. I just… I don't know how yet."

"That's alright," he says gently.

Buffy asks, "Will you wait for me?"

Spike furrows his eyebrows exasperatedly. "Wasn't planning on hopping on a cargo ship tonight."

Buffy looks down at the map.

"Buffy, did I…" Spike hesitates. "Did I do something wrong? Say something—"

"No," Buffy says quickly, turning to him again. "Spike, this is—God, that you'd even…" She smiles shakily. "I'm kinda back to the no words."

His shoulders loosen.

Buffy fights the urge to pick at her nail polish. "I guess it… kinda makes me feel like I did something wrong."

"What?" Spike takes her hands. "Are you off your bird?"

"Because you think—" Buffy swallows, pressing her lips together. "You think I don't love you? Or—or that you're not enough? I—I don't make you feel…"

"I wanna deserve you, love," Spike insists. He touches their foreheads together. "Wanna make it better for you here. Be someone you're proud of. Not this—this monster."

Buffy says—

Spike holds his hand up between them: it's starting to smoke.

"See?" he asks softly. 

Buffy kisses his almost-on-fire mouth. He leans into her, closer and closer, and she knows that if she asked he'd stay right here and burn.

"Remember when we first started dating?" she whispers, carding her fingers through his hair. "When you'd walk me home?"

"Yeah," he murmurs. "Kiss you under the big tree 'till the sun came up, just like this. Knew even then I'd never have enough of you."

Buffy nuzzles at his cheek. "Take me home?"

And he does.

 

~*~

 

Buffy wakes up to the sunlight filtering through the curtains. She's naked in their bed; it's probably almost noon—the horde of teenage girls in the living room will probably want breakfast soon, and she's sure her hair is a disaster—but to take care of any of that she'd have to give up the view.

Spike is sprawled beside her, drooling a little (even though he'd never admit it) on the pillow with his sharp cheekbone casting a faint shadow near his jaw. His nails are shiny and black again and his fingers are covered in rings, and thinking about this bed being empty of him—her partner, her lover, sharp teeth and all—ever again makes Buffy want to cry.

She wants to touch him, but his eyelashes are already fluttering; he's only half-asleep. He deserves to rest.

Buffy thinks about their dead little year—about grave dirt and shiny headstones and the birds that still haven't stopped singing. The wind chimes on the back porch. The same pretty demon in her bed. 

She thinks about Giles and her mother, and her brave little sister and stubborn friends, and the awful pit in your stomach when you don't know if someone really loves you.

Wouldn't it be nice if the world was a little kinder?

Buffy takes off her mother's jewelry and puts it on the nightstand. She lifts Spike's right hand off the bed, so gentle and slow and holding her breath, and takes back her ring.

The skull stares up at her, two little rubies glittering like drops of blood, or his eyes when he looks at her just right. She slips it onto her left ring finger and brushes that hand across his cheek.

Spike blinks up at her drowsily, this pretty smile stretching across his face just for getting to wake up next to her, and mumbles, "'S early, baby."

"Yeah," she whispers, touching sweetly at his temple.

Spike frowns a little, his eyes flicking down to his hand and then back up to hers. He pushes up onto his side, matching her posture, and says, "Buffy?"

"I've been lying to you," she says.

"What?" asks Spike.

"Since the desert," she says.

Spike's eyebrows furrow deeper. "I don't follow, love."

"I said the vision guide wouldn't help me, but they did," Buffy says. She swallows thickly. "I—I just didn't wanna… I didn't want you to know."

Spike hardly ever looks afraid. 

He asks, "Know what?"

"They said you don't need a soul to love somebody," Buffy says. "That's the… part we knew."

Spike ducks his head, looking at the space between their bodies.

"But they—they told me what a soul does," Buffy says, her eyes going wet. "They said—it's like in everything. All—all the people and… and the world. Like in the trees and the ocean and all the little fish, I guess? And so, you know, we all belong to each other. That's what it is. Like you can't ever—ever be alone."

"But not me," Spike asks, his fingers curling a little against the sheets. 

"They said demons were supposed to be free," Buffy tells him. "But that you—you gave yourself to me? That you… belong to me. But I can't—I can't give myself back, because I belong to my soul."

Spike clenches his jaw, his eyes raw and burning.

Buffy clears her throat. "I didn't tell you because I—I dunno. I was… I didn't wanna hurt you, and it's—it's not fair."

Spike tugs the sheets down where they're pooling around her hips, exposing the healing bite on her thigh.

"That what this is?" he asks, and he sounds far away. "Evening the score?"

"Don't say it like that," she begs.

"Like how, then?" he asks.

Buffy tilts his chin up. "Like I love you. And if you're gonna get your soul—"

"If?" Spike asks.

"Spike," Buffy says insistently. Her hand slides up to cup the side of his face. "I can't decide if you should get your soul or not. It should be your choice, and—and you should know what it means."

He shakes his head, looking away with his cheek pressing into her touch.

"But… I can promise to love you," Buffy says. She sniffles, running her thumb along his cheek. "I love you so much, honey, just like this."

"Like what?" Spike asks flatly. "What am I, Buffy?"

Buffy smiles shakily, warm new year tears rolling down her aching cheeks, and touches her forehead to his.

"Say it," he says.

"A monster," she whispers. His face in both her hands, his body shuddering with grief. "My monster. Isn't that enough?"

"I don't know," he rasps. "I don't know anymore."

Her palms are getting wet against his cheeks. She strokes the tears away, shushing him gently with her lips brushing against his nose, his mouth, the messy curls of his hair.

"I'm always gonna be the Slayer," she says, her voice trembling a little. "I'm always gonna… belong to the world. I'm sorry I can't change that."

"I love you," he says. His hands in her hair, gathering her up. "Buffy. Slayer. I love you."

"I know," she croaks. "Thank you. Thank you so much."

Spike says, "'S easy."

Buffy pulls away to look at him, smiling knowingly. "When I let you?"

He smiles back.

"So… I decided something," Buffy tells him. "Um, or I—I wanna… decide something."

"What's that, love?" Spike asks.

Buffy says, "The world kinda owes me one, so it's gonna have to share."

Spike laughs a little, tilting his head at her in knowing disbelief.

"If you want your soul, Spike, I want it for you too," Buffy tells him. Her shaky smile widens. "But I already love you. And—and I know it's not fair, because the way you love me is… it's so amazing, and I can't… I can't give it back, exactly. I can just try."

Spike wets his bottom lip.

"But if you think maybe it's enough?" Buffy asks, swallowing thickly. "If maybe it's… it's good enough, will you… will you marry me? For real?"

Spike laughs again and surges forward, kissing her hard and sweet and a little like he wants to eat her, still, after all this time (because he does), and like he's getting the whole world, too—just through her.

"You're right," he murmurs. "'S not really a fair trade. Maybe I should sweeten the pot a little, make sure it's worth your while."

Buffy shakes her head, this warm burst of springtime in her chest, and tells him, "Nothing else. Just be Spike."

Spike kisses her again, gently, a rough hand caressing up her open thigh, and when Buffy opens her eyes there are golden ones staring back at her.

And he says, "Deal."