"How could you?"
As mission debriefs went, Buffy thought, this one could have started off better. She faced Spike across her desk, trying, and failing, to keep the wobble out of her voice.
"You've been away almost a month." I missed you, Spike, dammit. "I've been worried sick about you. Then, when you do show up, you've done...this."
Spike was staring at her in bewilderment. At least, Buffy supposed it was bewilderment. It was hard to tell, because of the...the...
No, she couldn't even finish that sentence.
"It's not that bad, love, surely?" Spike protested. "I mean - " and he stroked the curls of dark blond hair sprouting from his chin - "it's only a beard for fuckssake."
Buffy gritted her teeth. "Stop -doing that."
"Doing what?" Spike looked even more bewildered (probably). "I'm not doing anything."
"Yes, you are," she said, in an accusing tone. "You're stroking it, like...like a villain in some old movie, or...or..." Which bad guys from history had beards? "Genghis Khan," she finished, triumphantly.
"What?" Spike rolled his eyes. "Come on, love, you're bein' ridiculous."
"Anyway," he went on, with a pout (that you couldn't see), "Old Genghis's beard was much shorter. Hardly more than a goatee. This-" and he indicated the offending (and in Buffy's view downright offensive) facial hair - "is a proper one."
"A lumberjack, then," she countered, though as objections went, it sounded lame, even to her. "A... a short, bloodsucking lumberjack. All you need's a plaid shirt and an axe."
"Got an axe," he muttered, in a mutinous tone. "Got three, in fact. Wouldn't be seen undead in plaid. An' I'm not that short." He looked down his long nose at her. "Taller than you anyway."
"Everyone's taller than me, and don't change the subject. Shave it off, Spike, huh? It doesn't suit you." And I really, really hate it, in case you hadn't noticed. "Also, I bet it contravenes health and safety regulations." And if not, why not?
But Spike's face (what Buffy could see of it) had gotten that mulish look she recognised all too well.
"Sorry, love," he said, firmly. "Took me ages to grow the bloody thing. Think I'll hang on to it for a bit, if it's all the same to you?"
"What do you mean, ages? You've only been gone a month." Even if it felt like forever. "And it isn't 'all the same' to me. Why did you even grow it in the first place? Was that hell dimension really cold, or what?"
Even as Buffy was speaking, a thought struck her. Hadn't Spike once told her that vampire hair grew very slowly? Yet here he was, after only a month, sporting a beard that would make a hipster jealous. Not to mention, the bleach in his hair was all grown out.
She went cold suddenly. "Spike, just how long are we talking about here?"
His face (the visible part of it) closed down at once. He looked away across the room -at the calendar pinned to the back of the door, her loaded in-tray, the coffee pot- anywhere but at her. For a moment, she thought he wasn't going to answer at all.
Which didn't allay her suspicions one bit.
"How. Long?" she asked again, and this time she used her Slayer-in-chief voice, which usually did the trick, even when he was at his most stubborn.
Sure enough, he shuddered a little, then drew himself up straighter and looked her in the eye.
"Ten years," he said.
There was stunned silence.
"Ten...years?" Buffy managed, after what felt like another ten years of staring at him in disbelieving horror."Ten years?"
"Give or take a month or two," he said, looking uncomfortable.
There were tears in her eyes, Buffy realised. She blinked them away furiously. Ten years?
"But we checked out the whole time passing thing before you went," she protested."Willow's spell - it clearly said that time in this particular hell dimension runs at more or less the same rate as ours. How could she have gotten it so wrong?"
Spike was still standing at attention. The loyal soldier, Buffy thought, miserably.
"Not Willow's fault," he said. "Not anyone's fault. Time's a tricky bugger, specially in demon dimensions, and magic doesn't always have all the answers. Way I remember it back then, all Willow could really say for sure was that time ran a bit faster over there than it does here."
He grimaced. "Wouldn't've been so quick to volunteer for the mission, love, if I'd thought there was a risk I'd come back and find you died centuries ago."
The way I remember it back then? Of course, Buffy thought, that had been ten whole years ago for him.
"And it could've been worse, yeah?" he was saying. "I could've been stuck there, trying to close that sodding portal for centuries instead of just one decade." He preened a little. "But, apocalypse averted, yet another hell dimension closed off from earth for good. Mission accomplished, in fact."
Buffy just stared at him, open-mouthed. How could he dismiss what he'd been through so lightly? Was he suffering from some kind of post-combat stress disorder?
"That's great and all," she said, "but it doesn't change the fact that you've been gone for ten whole years. God, I'm so sorry, Spike. It must have been awful for you. If I'd thought even for a minute this could happen, I would never have let you go in the first place."
Spike frowned. "Pardon my French, love, but don't talk bollocks, and don't try and second guess yourself. Someone had to go, or it was bye, bye world, and I'm the only one who was up to the job. I know that, and so do you. You knew it when you sent me. And there's nothing to be sorry for. I'm a vampire. I don't age. I mean, how would you be feelin' now if it was, say, Faith who'd gone, and she'd come back lookin' ten years older?"
"Bad," she admitted. "I'd've felt really bad." The way I do now. "All those years wasted in some demon-infested hellhole."
"Well, there you are, then," he said, grinning (probably), though now she looked more closely, the grin didn't seem quite to reach his eyes. "At least I only came back with a beard."
But she was frowning now too. "No. It's more than that. You're...different." A sudden thought struck her. "Where's your duster? Don't tell me you lost it."
His face sobered. "Didn't lose it. Just decided to leave it there, that's all."
"But...why?" She could hardly believe what she was hearing. "You loved that coat. I know you did." She grimaced a little. "Even though how you got it was..."
She'd been going to say 'icky' but the word seemed inadequate (to say the least), so she didn't.
"...not very nice?" he finished for her. She nodded.
There was another silence. Then, abruptly, he pulled out a chair and sat - slumped, rather - down on the other side of the desk, facing her. Like he was suddenly exhausted, she thought. Which he probably was, poor guy. He'd only been back a matter of hours, and here she was, losing her temper with him over trivialities.
Guilt racked her, even though she knew he was right about one thing. Someone had had to undertake that mission or it really would have been world go boom! (again), and he really was the only one who could have done it and returned (so he claimed) unscathed .
But she wouldn't blame him, she thought, wouldn't blame him at all, if his appearance wasn't the only thing that had changed in all that time.
It was wrong of her - very, very wrong- not to trust him, but Spike had always craved company and those were a lot of years to be alone. It was hard to believe he'd spent them living like a monk.
"Here." Opening her desk drawer, she took out a bottle of scotch and a glass and pushed them across the desk to him.
He raised an eyebrow at the sight. "Baby Slayers actin' up again, love? Can't imagine you'd take to knockin' back the hard stuff otherwise."
She sighed. "When are they not acting up? The bottle's not mine, though. Its Giles's. He asked me to look after it for him."
Spike glanced at the label. He looked impressed (probably). "Watcher afraid he'll drink it too fast, is he?"
Buffy nodded. "Something like that."
"Wouldn't blame him." Spike opened the bottle and took a deep sniff, before pouring himself a big glass full. "God, I've missed decent whisky."
She watched him while he drank -slowly, eyes shut, savouring each drop - feeling thoroughly ashamed of herself.
God, Summers, what the hell are you thinking? You're actually trying to get your boyfriend drunk so he'll admit he cheated on you.
"So," she prompted him, after a long silence, during which she took in again how different he looked - so he's a natural blond? Who knew? "Why did you leave the duster behind, Spike? Tell me."
His eyes opened again. Tipping his head back, he drank the rest of his drink in one big gulp, then, to her surprise, instead of pouring himself another, pushed the glass and bottle away.
"I decided it was time for a change," he said.
She looked from him to the bottle and back. Since when did Spike stop at just one drink? "So I see."
This was way more serious than she'd thought. Not to mention, if she wanted any more information out of him, it looked like she was just going to have to ask for it point blank.
Leaning forward across the desk, she met his eyes. "What happened over there, Spike? I'd really like to know."
When he didn't respond at once, she went on, "Okay, I get that you have this whole call of duty thing going on, but if you're going through something, you should talk about it. Repressing trauma's not good. In fact, it's a complete no-no."
He raised an eyebrow. "Pot/kettle, don't you think, love? You're not much for oversharin' yourself."
She scowled. "What does that have to do with anything? I'm not the one who just spent ten years in a hellish, er...hell dimension."
He scowled back (at least, his forehead corrugated). "Was no more hellish than usual."
She folded her arms. "Even so. Tell me what happened there. That's an order."
They glared at each other for...maybe thirty seconds, but then he sighed.
"That's just the trouble really. Nothing happened."
She sat back in her chair.
"Come on, Spike, you can't expect me to believe that."
"But it's true," he insisted, "or kind of. Okay, there were all the usual demon-type shenanigans goin' on- pain, misery, torture, war - an' of course I had to do a lot of sneakin' around so none of the buggers found out what I was really up to, but mostly it was just boring."
"Boring?" She gaped at him. " How can you even say that? It sounds like ten years of sheer hell to me. Literally."
He sighed again. "Maybe, but it was still boring." He met her eyes, suddenly earnest. "Everyone was just evil, you see, day in, day out, month after month, no let up. You've no idea how fucking dull it gets after a while."
"'Course," he went on, "I never understood that back when I didn't have a soul. Thought evil was the best thing ever. Now that I do have one, though..."
He put his head in his hands for a moment, then met her eyes again. "God, love, how on earth did you put up with me? Dunno how come you didn't keel over with the sheer tedium every time I threatened to kill you."
"Er... " Buffy stared at him, at a loss how to respond. She couldn't remember feeling bored by him back when he'd been evil. Scared of him once or twice, sure, angry at him, a lot, and sometimes just plain old exasperated as hell with him (because however hard you kicked his ass, he'd just bounce back again like an evil rubber ball). But bored?
On the other hand, she had been fighting evil since she was fifteen years old, and it could definitely be pretty one-note at times.
"I think you're selling your evil self short," she said, nevertheless. "Also, what does evil being boring have to do with you ditching the duster and the bleach job and growing a beard?"
She expected an eye-roll at this, but instead he gave her another earnest look (and was she learning how to read his face again, despite all the hair?), and said,
"Everything. See, demons don't change, love, they really don't. That's why you can always pick vamps out in a crowd. They stick out like a sore thumb on account of bein' stuck in their own little personal time warp."
This was true. She knew it for a fact. Not least because the last vampire she'd dusted had been dressed like vintage era Bonnie Tyler.
"As for other demons," Spike went on, "they're creatures of habit too. If they weren't, Watchers wouldn't've been able to write all those musty old tomes teachin' the Slayer how to kill 'em, would they?"
"Good point," she conceded, though where he was going with it, she still had no clue.
"So anyway," he said, "bein' stuck in that bloody place for a whole decade with only demons for company really banged it all home to me. Ten whole years and some of the buggers never even changed their underwear."
"Eww, gross!" she exclaimed, and his lips (or rather his moustache) twitched in amusement.
"Was pretty up myself when I first got there, mind you. Thought I was better than all of 'em because I had a clean pair of knickers and a soul."
"You are better," she protested, but he didn't seem to hear her.
"But after a while, I realised I was no different, or not much. All right, so I could still be goin' round dressed like a Victorian fop and I'm not, but how long's it been since I changed? Really changed, I mean?"
"Er...not that long, "she said. "I'd say getting your soul back was a pretty big change."
But his gaze had gone unfocussed and he talked right over her.
"Well, there's the soul, I 'spose, but what did I change about myself even then? Bugger all. In most ways, I was still stuck in the seventies."
He met her eyes again. "Don't you think, love?"
"Er...I guess?" she muttered, doubtfully.
"Punk was a big revelation to me, gotta admit - the clothes, the whole sensibility. It wasn't just camouflage like other times, to blend in with the livestock - sorry, love, vamp talk -I felt like I'd been waitin' for it to come along all of my unlife."
He grimaced. "Trouble is, I've never moved on from it. No wonder people said they couldn't see any difference in me after I got my soul."
"Who said?" she demanded, indignantly. "They're idiots, whoever they are."
This made him smile, (or possibly smirk, she was still struggling with beards and nuance). "Thanks, love, I always knew deep down you agreed with me about Angel."
"Hey!" she protested, but he was back to ignoring her again.
"So there I was, see, surrounded by unchanging evil demons, wearin' the same clothes I've been wearin' for the last forty years an' actin' in the same stupid, self-destructive way. So I decided to change, that's all. To prove to myself I could still do it. Not just my clothes- my appearance- but myself as a person."
His eyes on her face were almost begging her approval. She sighed inwardly. He'd been gone for ten years. Slapping him down again over something as trivial as hideous facial hair would be just...cruel.
"Soo," she said, because it was either laugh or cry, "you decided to become a hipster?"
He reared back in his chair looking outraged. "No need to be insulting, love."
"Sorry." She leaned forward across her desk again, holding his gaze. "Look, Spike, I understand what you're trying to do. Really. But you don't have to do it - not to prove anything to me."
She smiled, because it was important he got this. "As far as I'm concerned, you'd already changed in all the ways that matter. And okay, you can be a little rough around the edges now and then -" and that's putting it mildly - " - but everyone accepts it now because they know your heart's in the right place. They understand that that's just you."
He said nothing, just stared at her, as if hanging on every word.
"What I'm getting at," she went on, after a moment, "is, what's on the outside - it's not important, okay? It's what's inside that matters."
"Well, maybe not the duster," she qualified. "I mean, it looked good on you, sure, but it was kinda..." Again, words failed her.
"...not very nice?" he finished for her, yet again.
"Yes, that," she agreed. "But the bleach blond hair...the Punk' tude...I kinda liked it."
Pushing the overburdened in-tray aside, she reached right across the desk, grabbed a chunk of his beard in her fist and tugged it very gently. "And I really don't like -"
"-this," she finished in an uncertain tone. Then she frowned and began carding her fingers through the dark gold strands. "Huh," she said. "It feels really soft. I thought it'd be all scratchy."
Spike's hand closed over hers, and with a kind of electric jolt, she realised this was the first time he'd touched her since he came back. "So what're you saying, Slayer?" he almost purred, as he guided her out of her chair, around the desk and in between his spread legs.
"Er..." she said, still in the uncertain tone, trying to ignore a sudden...loose feeling in her groin which made it very hard to think coherently.
He was smiling, she realised, and this time the smile had definitely reached his eyes. Meanwhile, cool fingers were stroking her thigh. She caught her breath, but she wasn't so far gone just yet that she'd forgotten about her earlier worries.
"Ten years, huh?" she said, looking down at him, trying to work out this new face of his. "That's a long time, Spike. I'm surprised you even remember me."
His fingers paused in their stroking (which, she really, really didn't want them to do). He frowned. "Don't talk daft, Slayer. There isn't a bloke in his right mind who'd forget a woman like you. Not in a hundred years, let alone ten."
"This hell dimension, not big with distractions of the female kind, then?"she pursued, while mentally kicking herself that she still had to go there.
But he didn't seem at all offended.
"Oh, so that's what you're gettin' it, is it?" he said, fingers moving from her thigh to the small of her back and drawing her closer. "Were a few nice lookin' tarts there, have to admit, but nothin' worth gettin' out of bed for."
"Or into bed, for that matter." He grinned at her.
"Is that so?" Her own fingers were still playing with the impossibly silky hair on his chin. Is he using product on it, or what? "So, you're telling me you were celibate for a whole ten years? It doesn't-"
She stopped mid-sentence. No, this is too much.
"I mean," she went on, backtracking hurriedly. "I wouldn't blame you, Spike, if...if you'd needed some...er, relief. Honestly I wouldn't." Would I? " Ten years is a long time, and it's not like you bargained on being gone so long."
Surely he'd get mad at her this time, she thought, but again he seemed completely unfazed.
"Come on, love," he said, "it was no big deal. An' it's not like it's the first time, is it?"
"It's not?" she stared at him in amazement.
He shook his head. "Yeah, Dru an' me had our share of fights over the years. Some of 'em went on for decades. Doubt she felt the same, but while we were on the outs, I never could look at another woman. All I ever wanted was her. And now..."
His gaze was fixed on hers, his fingers, meanwhile, had returned to her thigh, upwards and inwards, to the distinct wet patch at the crotch of her panties. A moment later, they'd entangled themselves in flimsy lace and were tugging sharply downwards.
Weak-kneed, she slid down into his lap. Then, setting her hands either side of his face, she leaned in and kissed him hard on the lips.
Much to her surprise, not only did the beard not scratch, it hardly even tickled. As for his mouth, it tasted good. Cool and clean and...
She reared back from him again in surprise.
"Spike, have you quit smoking too?"
"What if I have?" His nuzzled into her throat, free hand sliding under her shirt.
She kissed him again, hard enough to leave him gasping this time. "Then I'd say, this change thing? Maybe it's not such a big deal after all."
Author's note: Just for the record, I do not hate beards.