The Letter

Chapter 8:
Friends Come Visiting

The Letter
The  Coat
The Man
The Truth
The Talk
The Visit
The Dinner
Friends Come Visiting
Epiphany
Making Contact
Back in the Saddle Again
Pennies from Heaven
The Prodigal
Revelation
Reconciliation
The Salon
A New Beginning
Tea and Sympathy
Convergence
Encounters and Interludes
Desperate Measures
Dancing in the Dark
The Vampire, the Witch and the Watcher
A Week in the Death of William the Bloody
Phoenix Rising
Picking Up the Pieces
I Love a Parade
Mr. and Mrs. Summers

Halfway there. Only four hours to go. Buffy wiped the counter in front of her again, though it still glistened from the last time. There was only a moderate dinner rush weekdays and then just stragglers until closing time, which meant the hours dragged by. She was now de facto assistant manager with more seniority than anyone else currently employed, having stayed on when the college students had quit at the end of the summer. Of course, since nothing had been made official, all that really meant was more responsibility and more time spent in closing the store, without a commensurate increase in pay. She sighed, and wiped the counter again. Three hours, fifty-eight minutes.

"Hey Buffy," said a familiar, melancholy voice.

"Xander, hi!" she said, looking up into her friend's face. He'd become quite the regular over the summer, dropping in every night after work in preference to returning home to an empty apartment and cooking for one. His waistband was certainly showing the effect of the DoubleMeat diet. Uh-oh, that's even less happy face than usual. "The usual again? Or can I finally convince you to try something from the other side of the menu board?" she asked, trying to lighten his expression.

"There's a 'for lease' sign in the window of the Magic Box," he said without preamble. "She's selling the store."

It's going to take more than a free DoubleMeat Medley to handle this one. "Darlene, I'm taking my evening break early," she said to her co-worker at the counter. "Call me if there's anything you can't handle. Come on," she said, grabbing a couple of burgers off the warming rack before turning back to Xander again. "Let's go talk."

**********

"I can't believe she would do this without even telling me," he said before they had even sat down in the break room. Buffy handed him one of the burgers and he opened it absently. "It means she doesn't intend to come back. How could she do this to me?"

"She hasn't tried to contact you at all?" Buffy asked.

"Not once the entire summer. I haven't seen her since the day we stopped Willow. Hell, I don't even know if she's in this dimension any more. For all I know, she's gone back to Arashmahar and is working for D'Hoffryn again." Xander swallowed a too-large bite of his burger. "There's a reno crew in the store now. I talked to the foreman, but he said it was all arranged through her lawyers and the insurance company."

"What about asking some of the guests from her side of the wedding?" she suggested, unwrapping her own burger. "If you have addresses for any of them, maybe you could get in touch and see what they know."

"I don't know where any of that stuff is any more. And anyway, what's the use?" he declared fatalistically. "She's made it pretty clear she doesn't want to hear from me."

"Xander, you can't just give up on her this way," Buffy protested. "Not if you really love her."

"Hey, she's the one who took off," he retorted defensively.

You started it, was what she wanted to say, but knew it wouldn't help. Another possibility suddenly suggested itself to her. "What about Clem? He was there, maybe he could help."

"You mean floppy guy?" Xander asked, flapping both hands at the side of his head in imitation of two of Clem's more outstanding characteristics. "I suppose..."

"He's been living in Spike's crypt over the summer. You should be able to find him without too much trouble."

"I don't know. Any friend of Spike's is hardly going to be a friend of mine. Leaving town was the smartest thing that bastard's ever done."

Oh. Oh dear. I knew there was something wrong with that idea. "Xander," she said tentatively. "Spike's come back."

His face closed up into near-mindless fury. "That's it; I'm really going to kill him this time." Xander surged to his feet, as though he were about to head over to stake Spike immediately. Buffy stopped him with an unbreakable grip on his arm.

"Xander, I'd... really rather you didn't," she managed to say. "He's... mostly harmless now."

"What is it with you?" He tried to shake her hand from his arm, but she wouldn't release him. "How can you still defend him after everything he's done to you? To us? Anya had sex with him right on that damn table in the store. We all saw them. How could I ever touch her again without thinking about that?" He was shouting now, not caring who heard. Chicken caps pecked intermittently at the window glass, but no one dared to enter the room.

"That was about trying to kill the pain, Xander. Trust me, I know all about that feeling." She felt a sudden electric thrill down her spine, and took a deep breath before releasing her hold on him. Ever have a moment of perfect clarity? I think I'm finally beginning to understand why to forgive is 'divine'. There's no other way to finally achieve some peace. "She can feel the human desire for vengeance. As long as you make your apology to her conditional on hers to you, you'll never get her back."

"So now you're the expert on relationships? That hardly seems likely, what with you screwing the evil undead and all." As soon as the words had left his mouth, he realized what he had said. "God, Buffy, I'm sorry. It's just... this whole thing with Anya is making me crazy." He ran his hands through his hair and began pacing the room, the rest of his dinner cooling and forgotten.

"I know," she said, trying not to let the hurt show in her voice. I forgive you, too. I know exactly how much it hurts. "That's the same reason I went to see him. To apologize for the way we - the way I treated him last year. To stop the crazies."

Xander stared at her open-mouthed for some time before he could reply. "You apologized to him? To that - that rapist? What the hell were you thinking, Buffy?"

So much for being sorry. I'm not going to let you make me defensive; I know I did the right thing. "Yes Xander, I apologized. Because whatever he did to me doesn't change the way I behaved."

"Why should you care how you treated him?" he protested. "He's just a monster. An evil, soulless thing. He's killed hundreds, maybe thousands of people. Just because he's got a chip in him now doesn't change that."

"Xander," she said softly. "How many people died last year, dancing themselves to death, because of a demon you called? How many people, Xander?" He looked away, shamed. She went on, not willing to spare anyone now that she'd started speaking the truth. "Or how many people died, including Ms. Calendar, when I couldn't bring myself to stop Angelus soon enough, because I kept hoping to find Angel in him? We're supposed to be the good guys. We've got the souls that are supposed to help us do the right thing. Spike doesn't, and he's still helped us. He didn't deserve what I did to him."

"You're just fooling yourself into thinking that he's a good man, so you don't have to think about the two of you," he challenged. "To salve your conscience."

"No, I'm not," she countered. "I know very well that he's neither. He's not good, and he's not a man. But that doesn't make what I did acceptable. To believe that would be almost as bad as saying Willow did nothing wrong when she killed Warren, just because he was evil." She sighed. "Spike is what he is - a vampire without a soul. I shouldn't be surprised that he's not very skilled at doing the right thing; I should be surprised that he even can manage to consider it."

"So you think I should just forgive them both for what they did? Just like that?" His voice was incredulous. "That's it? No consequences? Nothing?"

"Xander, if you don't go ahead and finally forgive, you're going to let someone you can't stand live rent-free in your head forever. I finally got tired of carrying the pain around. So yes," she said evenly, "I guess I've forgiven him, and I've apologized to him. I did both because they were something I needed for myself, not for him."

"Sorry Buff," he said, heading for the door. "I just don't buy it. Spike owes me, owes us all, and I'm going to make him pay. Somehow." Xander yanked open the door and walked out, scattering the curious witnesses.

Oh, that went well. Buffy looked down at her cold, congealed burger, marked with only a single bite. Her appetite had vanished. She rewrapped the foil around it and tossed it into the garbage before returning to the front of the restaurant. "Doesn't anyone work around here?" she snapped, seeing the inquisitive looks. They scurried back to their appointed tasks.

Three hours and thirty minutes. Sometimes I really hate this place.

**********

Spike entered the crypt and found Clem watching television with a large bowl of chips at his side. He dropped Dawn's care package, his laundry and all the equipment he had hauled out of the Summers basement in an untidy heap in the middle of the floor, and then grabbed a handful of chips. "I'm an idiot, Clem. It's official." He threw himself into a folding chair that squealed in protest at this treatment.

"Well, you might not qualify for Mensa, Spike, but I think 'idiot' is probably a bit harsh," Clem replied, always ready to look on the bright side. "Why would you say that?" He got up and turned off the TV. "Does this have anything to do with where you've been this afternoon? I was getting worried."

Spike smiled helplessly at friend's mother-hen nature. "Sorry, Dad, I'll be sure to leave a note next time. I was visiting Dawn."

"She's a lovely girl, isn't she?" Clem said, distracted from his original question. "We had some wonderful visits over the summer. She really likes to play Parcheesi."

Spike was forced to cough to cover a laugh. Dawn couldn't stand Parcheesi, but was too soft-hearted to let Clem know it. "We had quite the visit ourselves, and she's given me some stuff - and some ideas. Here, give me a hand with this, would you?" He finished his chips and got back to his feet, dusting his palms on his jeans.

Between the two of them, they sorted Spike's new possessions into order in only a few minutes. "I'm going to need to scrounge up another dresser from the dump," he said, looking at the transformation of his living space. "I don't want to have to explain to Dawn why I had to keep my clean laundry on the floor." And have to face the wrath of Dawn? Don't think so.

The wolves seemed a little farther from the door today than at any time since his unexpected transformation. His small refrigerator now held bread, cheese, apples and a pint of milk. Balanced precariously on top of it were a variety of other foods and near-food items: peanut butter, crackers, chips, a couple cans each of baked beans and beanie-weenies... going to need a can opener... instant hot chocolate mix (the kind with the little marshmallows, he observed, and his heart ached), powdered drink mix, fruit cups, tinned pudding, soup mix... and a kettle, and a cup, and a plate, and some spoons... He wasn't sure that the half package of red Twizzlers qualified as even near-food, but he wasn't about to complain.

"Hey, are those oysters?" Clem asked, seeing a small, rectangular can stacked with the others. "Man, I love smoked oysters, don't you?"

"Help yourself," Spike replied, tossing him the can. "Sorry I can't offer you a fork." Oysters didn't strike him as the sort of thing either Buffy or Dawn would have voluntarily purchased; he concluded that Joyce had bought them for herself, and that they'd probably been sitting on a shelf for well on two years or more. Not the thing to test a relatively new digestive system with.

Clem pulled open the tab on the can eagerly and wasted no time pulling out the fragrant morsels with his fingers as he walked back to his chair. As the odour wafted out, Spike suddenly found himself grateful that he had no more than a human sense of smell anymore. He grabbed up the water container he had borrowed along with the sleeping bag, and headed for the door. "Just going to step out to the nearest water tap and fill up," he said, hefting the container for emphasis. "Be right back." He hoped that the smell of oysters would have dissipated by the time he returned. His last sight as he shut the door behind him was of Clem eagerly slurping the dregs of juice from the can, and he shuddered.

He returned to find that not only had Clem finished the oysters; he'd polished off the bowl of chips as well. Sighing, Spike set the full water container beside the fridge and raided his own stash for more snacks. Girl's got a twisted sense of humour, he thought, tearing open a small bag of garlic flavoured potato chips and joining Clem in front of the television. "Anything good on?"

"Actually, Spike, I wanted to talk to you about what you said when you first came in. I'm worried to hear you so down on yourself," Clem said, looking concerned as he flicked the remote to shut off the TV.

Got to learn to keep my mouth shut. "It's nothing."

"No, really, I think you need to open up about it. Yesterday on Oprah, Dr. Phil was just talking about how psychologically damaging it can be to hold in negative feelings, and-"

"I'm an idiot, Clem," he said, putting down the chips and resigning himself to his fate, "because of what I said to Buffy yesterday. I was so busy trying to get some of my own back that I wasn't really listening to what she said." He ran one hand wearily over his face as he remembered his words to her. "She came to apologize, and all I could do was rabbit on about how badly she'd treated me and how I deserved much better."

"Well, she was pretty hard on you..." Clem began.

"I don't think that's the point. She decided that she needed to apologize, to put the past to rights, and I was too preoccupied to notice." He sighed. "This soul business is harder than I thought."

"Are you going to go see her? To tell her that?"

"No. She doesn't need that; she apologized in order to let it go. The least I can do for her is to honour that and forgive her."

"So now what?" Clem wanted to know.

"So now, I try to work out a way to atone. To her, the others - to the world, I suppose. I've been pissing about feeling sorry for myself for too long. And the first step, my friend, is money - honest money, so I don't have to pinch stuff any more, or beg food from Dawn, because they surely can't afford it."

Clem was instantly enthusiastic. "I know where we can find any number of high-stakes games," he suggested. "And I've got this new system--"

"Won't work," Spike interrupted, shaking his head. "Any one of my former associates happens to catch a glimpse of my shiny new reflection and I'm instantly persona even less grata than I've been recently. And it won't take vamps and other demons more than a few seconds to sniff out the changes in me. I don't need to be fending off attacks from half the demon population of Sunnyhell while I try to work things out. I've only kept out of trouble so far by staying out of sight - and by killing everything that got close enough to find out. Once I've got the dosh, though, everything changes."

He got up and crossed back to the stone tombs. "Fortunately, unlike most of my plans, I have actually given that some thought." It took every almost every ounce of his strength, but he slid the lid of one tomb aside. Reaching in, he pulled out a large, fabric-covered box, which he set on the stone.

Shortly after Dru had first turned him, when he still persisted in human behaviours out of force of habit, he had returned home to his family's estate. He'd wandered the silent halls while his family lay sleeping, and nicked whatever valuables - mainly jewellery - that took his fancy, thinking to pawn them later. Angelus had thrashed him thoroughly for this indiscretion, for taking the chance of calling attention to themselves. Ultimately he had realized how pointless money was to his new existence, but he couldn't bring himself to dispose of the items. He had given many of the pieces to Druscilla and then buried the rest, securely wrapped in oilcloth, under loose stones in the fence that marked the boundary of his family's land. Whether it was luck or fate, there they had remained undisturbed until he had returned home this summer at last, and he'd smuggled them and himself back to Sunnydale.

More than one hundred and twenty years later, they could help finance a new beginning if he could find the right buyer. An idea struck him. But first... Spike opened the water-stained case and caressed the few remaining treasures inside. Behind him, Clem sucked air in appreciation. Most of what was left simply rattled loose in the case, but there were a few smaller jewellery boxes as well. These he opened one at a time, until the contents of one in particular caught his eye. He tucked the small box into one pocket with a smile, and then went looking for a piece of paper and a pen.

Minutes later, he surveyed the resulting note with a critical eye. 'A gift... my word... not stolen...' Well, not recently, anyway. And most of this stuff would have come down to me in the natural order of things. Probably. He straightened and folded the paper into thirds, then in half again, to fit his pocket as well. Shading the truth already, Will? Can't get her to accept it otherwise, can I? Am I going to debate myself this way for the rest of my life? Wonder if Peaches talks to himself this much. He grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. "Gonna be out late, Dad," he said to Clem with a grin as he left. "Don't wait up."

**********

The crypt door flew open with a crash, sending dust billowing and Clem jumping from his chair, looking to see the cause of the commotion. He relaxed into a smile when he identified his visitor. "Xander! Long time no see! Listen, I was really sorry about the way the whole wedding thing-"

Xander had no interest in Clem's small talk. "Where is he?" he demanded. "Where is that blood-sucking son-of-a-bitch? And don't tell me he's gone, because I've seen Buffy and I know he's back."

Clem's face grew stern as he moved to the door. "There's no need for that kind of language. Spike's gone out for the evening and I don't know when he'll be back. You'll have to come back another time." He moved forward, blocking Xander as he tried to come further into the crypt.

"I said, I want to know-" Xander grabbed at Clem's arm in an attempt to push him aside. Under the fabric of his shirt, Clem's loose skin slipped easily over his flesh and Xander couldn't keep his grip. Clem had no such difficulty. He curled one hand into the front of Xander's shirt and lifted him with contemptuous ease until his feet left the floor. Three steps carried them back over the threshold, where Clem set Xander gently back on his feet. Xander tensed, expecting a blow, but Clem just shook his head sadly.

"I'm sorry I had to do that, but Spike is my friend, and I won't tolerate this kind of behaviour in his home. You're welcome to come back as soon as your manners improve. Good night." With that, he shut the door in Xander's astonished face. 

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