"In a past life, I drowned in all my tears. In this life, I learned how to swim."-Gordon Donaldson
That's good, at least. Familiar, comforting, a reminder of persistent unlife. Pain he knows intimately, like an old friend or lover.
Spike's hands spread, at least three bones rattling together in his fingers. He lifts his head, eyes opening simultaneously, and the world tips precariously on its axis, sending a wave of nausea crashing over him. He swallows, something that takes considerable effort through a raw throat, and hauls himself to his feet. He staggers, collapsing to his hands and knees, retching alcohol and blood and bile into the puddles of rain beneath him. His body heaves, long after his stomach is empty, and a steady trickle of blood drips off his face into the already reddening pavement.
"'lyria?" It comes out as a croak, nearly unrecognizable as his own voice. "Angel?" No answer. Sounds are muffled, sights dimmed. He tries to catch scent, only to double over coughing, chin banging against the pavement as his lungs tear, burning with the gasp of air. Something wrong.
His mind clears, marginally, tossing frayed scraps of memory at him. Charlie collapsed on the pavement, having made it three minutes longer than Illyria had thought he'd last. Angel, toe to toe with the dragon somewhere in the distance. His own yells as he slices through a demon. And then Illyria, glowing with light, slamming into his chest with the force of a truck - she wasn't even supposed to be able to do that, he remembers, but anger and newfound grief had awakened some deeper, hidden power - hurling him backwards, as she exploded.
Spike struggles to his feet, slowly this time, using the wall of the alley behind him for support, and makes it, even as a broken ankle protests every movement. No matter. He's walked on broken bones before. He stumbles into the street, weaving like a drunkard. A woman walking past, holding an umbrella despite the ended storm, gasps, then darts away. He tries to call after her, but chokes on the air, metallic burning the back of his throat. Another step, and he nearly falls over a homeless man. Old, slightly drunk, but with kind eyes that look him up and down.
"Are you all right, son?" Homeless old man, like he and Dru used to eat... The soul twinges, adding a nearly devastating straw to his burden of pain.
"Where?" He gasps out, and the man reaches an arm to steady him as he sways. "Los Angeles." His face swims, drifting in and out. "Bad explosion two blocks over. You in it?"
Spike tips forward, vomiting blood on the man's shoes, but it isn't the contents of his stomach this time, but something deeper, spreading like the sudden pain in his chest, as he gasps for air that won't come, and realizes vaguely that he's now lying on his back on the sidewalk, staring up at the stars as sirens wail in the distance. Another face, a policeman, bends over him, seconds, minutes later, maybe more, saying something he can't make out, until a sentence breaks through, asking him about someone to call, someone to come for him. He coughs, everything grey around the edges, and the stranger rolls him on his side as more blood runs out, dripping from his lungs and throat and onto the ground.
There's only one person, always, still. It's still all about you. He thinks he whispers her name.
And then, like a candle winking out into darkness, he's gone.
It takes a long time to sink in that he's gone.
Oh, its not that she's in denial, or even that she has any hope - she felt him start to burn, the lick of the fire eating at his bones, burning into her palm - and she knows what she would have seen if she'd stayed skin and bones and organs melting in the moments before he crumbled into dust. It's that her brain and her body haven't caught up to each other yet - like that weird reflex when you flip on a light switch during a power outage even if you know that the light won't work.
Like when Faith pulls the sheet down from the back window of the bus the next morning and a sharp cry nearly leaves her throat before Buffy realizes that it doesn't matter, because the only one of them the sunlight would affect is gone. Or when Kennedy tosses the cooler of blood out and she grabs at the packets he needs to eat, he doesn't feed on humans anymore and they don't have time to search for another butcher shop before she realizes that he's not standing behind her, watching her with amusement won't ever stand behind her again, and she lets them fall, breaking open on the ground and spilling into the dirt.
None of the others mention Spike. Willow touches her once, in sympathy, but she doesn't mention what for, and none of the others seem to even notice his absence.
She should have gone back after it was over, she thinks, climbed down into the crater that was once Sunnydale and found her mother's and Tara's graves, Anya's body, put up some kind of marker or memorial. But there wouldn't be anything of him to bury, just a handful of a dusty soul a spark and all it did was burn, and its wrong, so wrong that something someone so vibrant and alive undead, but whatever could be reduced to that Mr. Big Pile of Dust, eh, Pet?.
Her hand aches.
It's not a deep burn, but angry and red, faintly imprinted with his hand, his touch, and she keeps her fist curled closed tightly around it, as if she can hold onto it, that last tiny bit, a gravestone in her skin.
It lasts nineteen days, gone the morning of the twentieth, like magic, and she counted each one, the way he'd counted the days when she'd been dead 147 days and how did he even do that, that patient marking of days, and if she hadn't come back would he have done it forever, a thousand and more years into his immortal future? She counts out that many days, amidst training slayers and settling Dawn into school, picking an apartment Rome is quiet, different, a welcome change and learning to live, without the world resting on her shoulders.
She talked to Angel, over the phone, and only once, ten days after Sunnydale, and told him, in a voice that wobbled despite her best efforts, about Spike, even if she thinks he would have guessed the moment she walked into his office if she'd seen him in person no scent of Spike on her clothes, washed and cleaned, not a trace of him left. She told him about her champion, the one who went halfway across the world and won his own soul for her, who slowly sank into every corner of her life, every inch of her heart and soul. The one who died and dusted a better man a hero, and wasn't that the last adjective she'd thought would ever apply to the cocky, clapping vampire she first met in that alley than she could ever have imagined he'd become. Yet, he was always odd, she muses, the one who loved with an unbeating heart, who felt so deeply, even before the soul, the demon who never managed to wash out his humanity.
There was no grief in Angel's voice - Spike and he were always at each others throats, over her, and long before - but he was surprisingly sensitive, something she's grateful for, and he didn't press her like last time still my girl?, as if sensing she'd answer differently now. She didn't tell him her last words to Spike "I love you.", doesn't mention the hope and joy that rushed up into his eyes all those years hoping, and never thinking he'd ever hear it followed by the sorrow a crumb, a tiny crumb for a dying man, a kindness and disbelief and doubt. She didn't say that she meant it, that she should have stayed, even a second longer, said something, anything, to reassure him, that he should have died with that much at least, and now she'll never have the chance to tell him it was true.
After that, she lets Andrew relay messages or carry on any tasks - Giles trusts Angel less now than ever - and she's weary of being the One, deserves some time off, now that the other girls can keep the world from ending.
When her counting reaches 148 days she mourns. It's a strange thing, to have that grief and nothing to channel it into - no Hellmouth conveniently spitting out enough creatures to keep her slaying all hours of the night so she doesn't have to face her nightmares - but she doesn't run like she did after Angel died, she faces this head on with the strength Spike poured into her that night he held her while she slept. She rages at him for having to be a hero, a champion she's proud, so fiercely proud of how he changed, how far he came, how good he became by the end, overthinks every moment, how she could have saved him, ripped that necklace off him and pulled him out while still letting him save the world every night I save you, and sometimes just cries useless buckets of salt over your ending, every tear until there's nothing left but the ache.
It's slow and painful, wounds closing into ragged stitches, and never removed stitches growing into thickened scars, her heart learning to beat around them, despite them. She misses the love he held for her, that ever-burning, unconditional faith and understanding, the clarity that saw through her she could never fool him and guided her more than she knew, the frustration and anger and annoyance and strength and beauty and joy that he brought out in her, the smiles he coaxed out of her at her darkest, the fire and him. She misses him.
But she stops mourning. She keeps all of that, every scrap and fragment, every tiny piece of dust and shimmering glowing, pet soul and tucks them inside her to shore up the crumbling parts, to soften the scars. She's finally grown up, she thinks finished baking, no longer cookie dough. She has what she's wanted so long: peace, no longer the One, everything but him but she has that, too, in a way, all the words and looks, encouragement and moments, the best and worst, and the perfect clarity, and it isn't perfect it isn't enough but she's not just surviving anymore, she's living and thriving, and she thinks, if he could see her, he would be proud always was, Slayer, and even a little bit awed.
It's nearly a year since Sunnydale when another apocalypse goes down in L.A., Angel and his crew. There's no word on survivors, and Andrew gets a strange look on his face when he hears, and catches the first flight out.
He calls her, of course, a couple days later "Angel's okay." and the bands formed over those two days loosen around her heart, the weak rush of adrenaline to her head that she won't mourn him, too, that she hasn't lost someone else she loved. And then Andrew's still on the line, stuttering and seemingly trying to spit something else, and another band forms and tightens, sharper than the last one, slicing into the scar tissue and finding the soft parts.
"What is it?"
He hesitates only a moment, long enough for her to brace herself for whatever it could be, a dozen imagined scenarios. But the words that come out of his mouth never crossed her mind.
And her heart thumps hard, lurching itself against her rib cage.
Why? She asks silently past the lump in her throat. All those years pushing you away and now you just roll over and play dead? You didn't even see the truth? No you don't. But thanks for saying it. The lump thickens, threatening to choke her. Of course. Spike wouldn't intrude, wouldn't ruin her happiness. I know you'll never love me. Would never see himself as her choice. She blinks, holding back the tears that prickle at her eyelashes.
Andrew's still talking, and she focuses, as he goes on about something called a Shanshu prophecy about a vampire with a soul regaining humanity and pardon for his sins - Angel, everyone thought - and then the confusion over two champions, two ensouled vampires, finalizing with Angel signing it away to infiltrate and take down the Circle of the Black Thorn.
"It might have been Angel's the whole time. Or it might have Spike all along. Or maybe split between both of them. But, anyway.." Andrew's voice trails off. "It's just Spike's now."
"He's..." Her voice catches slightly. "Human?"
"Yeah." Excitement overtakes the shaking now, sending Andrew's voice up another pitch. "It happened in sort of bits and pieces after the battle. He lost his vampire healing and other senses, and then started breathing, heart beating, well, every-" She catches on the word "healing".
"How is he?" She cuts him off, fingernails digging into the side of the phone.
"Um, okay. Well, kind of."
"Um, the doctor said something about blood loss. He broke some ribs - and some other bones but - anyway, one of the ribs nicked a lung and well, humans need to use those." She swallows, remembering the punctured lung after Glory was finished with him, how he'd coughed, struggling for air to speak with any force for days after that.
"Is he going to live?" The phone hits against her jaw, a side effect of the trembling in her hand. She forces it to remain steady.
"Yeah. Some homeless man and an officer found him and got him to the hospital in time. He's sort of in and out of conciousness, but the doctor said he's going to be fine. I mean, fine for a human, of course, so he won't be up and around for a while, but, yeah, fine." She takes in a deep breath and nods, even if he can't see her.
There's some more dialogue between them, mostly directions to the hospital, and then her phone starts to die and the landing gear comes down, and she nearly runs out of the plane, flagging down the first taxi she sees. It's a short ride to the hospital, and Andrew, looking pale and nervous, points her toward the room as she all but knocks him out of the way.
"His wife." He tosses at a nurse - ever the excellent liar - but she doesn't stay to hear the woman's reply, because she's halfway to his room already, pausing only long enough to catch her breath and steady herself before stepping inside.
There's a tv pinned to the back wall, on low and playing one of those ridiculous soap operas Spike always followed religiously, and she half expects him to be sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes bright.
He's not. He's motionless, and that perhaps takes her aback more than anything, because she's only ever seen him this still once before and that was in the school basement, out of his mind from the new soul. His eyes are closed, lips slightly parted. His hair, still peroxide, curls slightly at the ends, the gel washed out. His skin, always chalky, is flushed with the color of blood flowing through his veins, and mottled with bruises and scabbing cuts. Buffy's eyes run the length of the bed, trailing the tubes and wires snaking from his body to machines, peeking out beneath blankets and across the sheets, oxygen into his nose, blood being fed into his veins.
Spike looks frail. While never large, he always radiated a presence that made him seem somehow bigger. Now, stripped of his coat and boots, he seems small and diminished, as if a strong hand could break him in half. But the monitors are steady, his breathing slightly uneven but strong.
There's a movement in the corner of the room and she starts, appalled at her lack of awareness, hand reaching automatically for the stake in her coat pocket when a tall shadow unfolds itself from the chair in the corner. Angel, in the last place she expected him to be. He looks at her for a long moment before speaking.
"Spike?" Angel says finally. It's all he says, a single word folded into so many questions Do you love him? Are you still cookie dough? and she thinks the old Buffy would have carefully sidestepped it, left it unanswered or deliberately vague He's not my boyfriend, but he is in my heart, but she's not that girl anymore.
"Yes." She says instead, and its enough. A flicker of pain crosses Angel's face, and then its gone, replaced by resignation, and, most unexpectedly, acceptance. Somewhere in nearly the year they've spent together, Angel and Spike have found common ground.
"The rest of your crew..?" She asks. "Did they..?"
Another flash of pain, this one staggeringly sharp. "Wesley's dead." His voice is tired, bone weary. "Gunn's a vampire now. I haven't.." He trails off. "Lorne made it out, I guess. Illyria not so much..she saved the world. Blew herself up. Wesley didn't take as much of her power as he thought he did. Not enough to collapse the continental shelf.." He gives a wan smile at some private memory. "But enough that three blocks of Los Angeles is leveled. And Connor.." A real smile this time, tasting the name on his tongue. "He's safe. Great, actually." Pride, she thinks, and something else. All these years and he's found something of the peace he's long sought. She feels a rush of selfless happiness for him.
His eyes soften, resting on her, but there's no demand in them, not the nearly stalker-like desire to protect her. He'll always be there, ready to come help whenever she'd call, and he'll always love her, as she always will him, that first love that stays warm in the memory, not to build a life on, but to start someone on a path. He'll never have all of her again, but he'll always have a small part, and that's the way it should be, leaving small pieces of your heart in others, and somehow finding yourself with more heart left than when you started as their piece fits into each empty space.
"I should go." Angel's voice breaks into her musings. "They're still looking for missing people, and I have a better chance of finding them than anyone." Scent, of course, she thinks. Being a vampire suits him, despite everything. Angel could never do what he does as a human. He doesn't seem to even regret signing the prophecy away. As if reading her thoughts his eyes drift to Spike.
"He fought for it." He says quietly, and she marvels that it no longer takes anything out of him to acknowledge Spike as a champion. "Beat me, even though the Cup wasn't worth anything. I didn't understand why he wanted it, just thought he was trying to take something from me, at the time. But it wasn't that."
"Why then?" She swallows hard, as his eyes come back to her with a knowing look. For her. To be hers." Of course. Everything Spike did was motivated by love, why should this have been any different?
Angel touches her shoulder, the slightest brush. "Be happy." Barely above a whisper. And then he walks past her.
Buffy crosses to the bed, hand hovering, before brushing down the side of Spike's face, across the unmistakable scar trisecting his eyebrow, over the sharpness of his cheekbone, down to his cheek. He doesn't lean into her touch, or even flinch. She drops to his hand, curling her fingers through his like the last time she held his hand, the day he died. Familiar, callouses and touch, even without the responding pressure of his hand tightening on hers. Warm. Unnervingly so, even after the times she'd warmed up his cool hand in hers, occasionally allowing herself to imagine him alive, a pulse ticking in his wrist.
Her eyes drift to the monitor, focusing on the steady beeping of his heart rate dancing across the screen. She moves slowly, climbing into the side of the narrow bed, curling against him, close enough to touch, not enough to hurt, lowers her head against his chest, mindful of the bandages will you just hold me?. His heart thumps beneath her ear, accompanied by the steady rhythmic rise and fall of breaths, more steady than the intakes of air he'd gasp in at sudden emotion, or the puff of a cigarette.
Its a good sound, humanity, another layer to the creature - the man - who already had as many as an onion.
She puts her head against his chest and lets the tears flow.
She catches a breath, holds it as his eyes open a crack, blinking under the lights. He starts to raise his undamaged hand to his face, then stops. His eyes freeze on her, with the same look he gave her years ago when she came back to life, that mixture of disbelief and hesitant hope. His head tilts marginally, then more, and she feels tears sting her eyes at the familiar, beloved expression.
"Buffy." His voice is faint, hoarse. "Are you..?" Real, she mentally finishes, the same words she'd asked him once. She laughs, watery but there.
"Yeah. Its me."
He's forgotten to breathe and coughs, wincing. Not quite used to human lungs yet. He blinks, fingers raising to brush her cheek, as if to prove her words to himself. She closes her eyes and leans into his touch.
"Am I dead then?" He whispers, and her eyes open, already shaking her head. She presses her fingers against his chest, feeling his other hand follow her touch.
"No. You're alive. You're...human. Andrew said you got the..Shanku?" She stumbles over the strange word but he seems to understand.
His eyes close and for a moment she thinks he's going to crumble, to mourn, that he didn't really want it after all. Her heart clenches, promises forming on her lips to help him, to not let him slip away from her again - unless that's what he wants, but surely... But he opens his eyes and looks straight at her with that soft look she once hardened her heart to, that now warms her like the tenderest kiss.
"That's bloody fantastic." He says softly, and its not sarcasm but tentative hope as he searches her eyes. "That is..Pet?"
There's a question there, searching for the last thing she said to him before he died. He's too afraid of rejection to voice it, but his face is filled with a desperate longing, such a wild hope that she nearly catches her breath from the intensity of his gaze. And this time she doesn't say it like its the last time ever, not rushed and timid, because, if she's lucky, they have many more times to say it, many more times for her to hear it back, if he feels the way he once did he does, she can see it written all over his face.
"I love you." She says, and its surprisingly easy and right, like the final pieces of a puzzle sliding into place, forming the full image clear and visible. And this time there's no denial, even as his breath catches and his eyes widen and brighten, nearly glowing what's another word for glowing? Gotta rhyme., and impossible, vibrant joy rushes across his face and this time, it doesn't fade.
"Oh, Buffy." He whispers, like a prayer, and isn't that a strange thought for a former vampire? "I love you so.."
She cuts him off with a kiss shut up, Spike but she's laughing and crying was she always this emotional or does he just bring that out in her? and he tastes of leather and smoke and the faintest trace of lingering blood and something she faintly recognizes as home.
They stay in California - no other place ever really felt like home - although not L.A., and she buys a cottage on the beach in a sleepy little town. It's a small two bedroom house with a white picket fence - Spike laughs at that a crypt for two? and she swats him, gently and playfully, and nothing like the blows she used to inflict, but he feigns an "ow" anyway.
As soon as he's fully healed they go back to training and patrolling at night - he's quick to adapt to the somewhat lesser strength and speed, the loss of stronger senses - but there's surprisingly few demons in the town and most of those are the friendly, non people eating kind that make them think fondly of Clem, wherever he may be now, and so far no vampires or hellgods or apocalypses anywhere.
They spend the days on the beach, Spike writing appallingly bad poetry into the sand - she likes them, she admits, even if she demands he find a better synonym for glowing why does every poem have to have the word effulgent, anyway? - and soaking up the sun like a cat "Look, Pet, I freckle and tan!", and the sea breeze and water spraying salt into her hair that she's slowly growing out, if for nothing else than because she secretly likes when he plays with it, brushing and combing, or just stroking. He stops slicking back his own hair even if he grumbles about the curls making him look like a "poof", but keeps coloring it "Got to keep a bit of my soddin' dignity, don't I?", and he starts eyeing the colors in the clothing store - blues and reds - and still wears the duster everywhere it's nearly summer and he has a body temperature and he looks ridiculous sweating but neither of them care.
It isn't all perfect - life never could be after all - and they fight over silly things and make up, that's the best part, and he breaks down sometimes when he's not quite the same as he was pre-human "oh, but the food tastes so much better, even baked onions!". There's grief over old memories - he mourns Angel's crew, and she still cries when something reminds her of Sunnydale, and a human soul still feels guilt, even if the prophecy claimed to remove all sins, but its normal, because its life. She hogs the pillows and blankets and he grumbles about her cold feet, and he leaves his clothes all over the floor and loudly sings the Ramones in the shower at five in the morning he can't sleep in because he likes sunrises now and sitting beneath them without catching on fire, and it's messy and perfectly imperfect but she knows she wouldn't trade it for anything.
He's gentle and tender had she forgotten? Or is the soul? Or did she never notice at all? and desperately love-starved a hundred plus years and no one had really loved him back and he takes every kiss, every word, every touch, like she's handed him the world itself and lavishes it back ten fold an unconditional, unwavering love and faith in her that she thinks will make her heart burst from happiness because she's missed it so much, that year without him. There's so much life in him - there always was, she thinks, but even more now, and he does nothing in half measure do you want to see the world, Slayer? We could take a trip for a year or two? - he never did - and she finds herself laughing as he launches himself into every aspect of human life with the same amount of glee and recklessness he always had.
Then Dawn comes home from school for the summer, and Buffy sees Spike's face as he hangs back, uncertain, hesitant, body stiffly held as he waits for the rejection, even a blow perhaps that was always more her style, Buffy thinks, but not anymore. She'd told Dawn everything, of course, from a phone in the hospital during the days when Spike was slowly healing, but Dawn had said little, and the tone of her voice gave away even less.
Dawn runs past the fence, dropping luggage by the driftwood she's so tall, now, and nearly grown, hugging Buffy tightly, before her eyes drift to the doorway - Spike pulls back, but not before she sees him. She walks slowly toward him, and his eyes go down, then back up, fingers twitching - he wants a cigarette but Buffy has him off them now I'm not getting you back from the dead just to have you croak of lung cancer six months from now - and he looks shy and downright terrified.
Dawn doesn't say anything. She just slips her arms around him and hugs him, even as he stands there stiffly, nearly forgetting he actually needs to breathe now. His hand reaches awkwardly, like he used to, those hesitant near touches, ready to be jerked back in an instant, pats her back, and she holds on tighter, listening to his heartbeat.
When Dawn pulls back, her eyes are sparkling with tears "for me, Pet?", and there's no words about the years before, but there's forgiveness in her face, and within a day or two Spike is calling her "Niblet" again, like he never stopped, as they argue over video games children, both of them and which one of them was the bigger bad.
They don't talk much about the past, after that, any of them. Angel, Buffy thinks, would never have stopped talking about it, even as surely as she realizes, with the clarity born of maturity and adulthood, that he still sees her as that innocent teenage girl who gave him hope, always will, perhaps. But they're not Angel. They don't dwell on sins and loss, pain and grief. They can't. There's nothing to change, nothing to be done by it. They carry the memories as part of them, the things that shaped and defined, scarred and bruised, but didn't break them. They can only forgive and do better, heal, and move forward. It's enough to build a life on, a day at a time.
And in the quiet, when its fall, and Dawn's back at school, and it's the middle of the night, they lie curled against each other, Spike's breath on Buffy's neck, even and regular in sleep, her cold feet tangled up in his warm ones, her heartbeat in his ears, and his in hers.
She thinks she was wrong, that she just had to wait to figure it out. Death was never her gift. Life was.