|Buffy didn't particularly care for her job, but she had become resigned to it for the sake of the necessary money it brought in. She would perform all of her duties with good grace and the best cheer she could muster, but every day there was one thing that still could push her to the point where she would swear she had to quit and find something better. Today, taking the used fryer oil and salvaged grease from the grill out to the recycling container behind the restaurant was the one thing. Slayer strength made the task of transporting the bucket easy enough, but the recycling container had clearly been designed by a committee that had never intended to get its hands dirty testing it. The opening for the waste was inconveniently high, and not really wide enough to handle the flow. As a result she ended up with stains all down one side of her uniform where it had spilled, and oil in her hair. Great. The DoubleMeat hot oil treatment. This day just can't get any worse. I really need to get out of here and kill something tonight.
There was a large convex mirror mounted on the wall in the back lane so that the staffers at the drive-through window could see cars waiting at the order board. Movement in it caught her eye. A lone figure with blonde-tipped hair and dark clothing was making his way up the alley. Note to self: never, ever, even think the words 'it can't get any worse'. No matter what I said to Xander about having forgiven him, I still can't deal with having to talk to Sp--
Her head snapped around to stare down the alley as her brain presented her with two irrefutable facts: she had seen him coming in the mirror, and the sun hadn't yet set. Okay, the Gem of Amarra could protect him from sunlight, but Angel destroyed it. Could there have been another? She turned back to the mirror in time to catch his wave, just a spread of the fingers of one hand in front of his chest, acknowledging that he'd been seen. But nothing can make a vampire visible in a mirror...
"Hello cutie," he said with an ironic smile as she spun to face him.
She could feel her lips moving, but no sound was coming out. That explained things: she'd been sucked into some crazy alternate dimension where vampires reflected, but that didn't have an audio track. The grease bucket dropped from her nerveless fingers and clattered loudly on the alley pavement, dispelling her wild notion.
Buffy didn't resist when Spike took her hand in his and pressed it to his cheek. His skin was as soft as she remembered, but warm now - so warm. Beard stubble pricked at her fingertips. He closed his eyes, his dark lashes beaded with unshed tears, and turned his head to place a gentle kiss in her palm. He slowly drew her hand down to his chest, pressing so that her fingers splayed firmly against him and she couldn't fail to feel the living heat of his flesh or the thud-thud-thud of his pounding heart. "I told you I could change," he said softly, opening his eyes again to look deeply into hers.
She stumbled back, pulling her hand away and cradling it in the other as though it had been enchanted somehow, its senses unreliable. All that kept her upright was the wall of the alley, and she leaned back heavily against it. "How?" she asked in a breathless whisper. "Why?"
"How was an accident," he replied wryly. "And as for why..." Spike took a deep breath. He stepped forward to reach for her but she shrank back, the fabric of her uniform scraping roughly over the bricks. He stopped and thrust his hands into his pockets, suddenly finding his boots immensely interesting. "I couldn't stand the thought of what I'd done to you. If the chip wouldn't keep me from hurting you, then I had to find something that would. And I suppose... I wanted to be someone that you wouldn't have to be ashamed of any more. So I went looking to win back my soul."
He stood motionless for some time before her with his eyes downcast until she replied shakily: "It seems you ended up with quite a bit more than you had bargained for."
He took his hands from his pockets to wipe his eyes and looked up at her again. "Joke's definitely on me this time, hey? Don't know why I should have been surprised; my plans always gang agley more oft than not."
His meaning was clear from the context though the words were nonsense to her. "But how... how is it possible that a vampire could even want to have his soul returned? I would have thought all of you were big with the 'no conscience, no remorse' deal."
"Because I love you," he said, as matter-of-factly as though there could be no other reason in his world for anything he would ever do. "Because you're worth that much to me. You say you can't love me - and I know that you don't," he said, before she could protest. "But you asked. That's my answer. I know it wasn't normal, but I wasn't ever really normal about love, even casting aside the whole 'creature-of-the-night' aspect. I've always been love's bitch, and I don't bloody well care."
Buffy wrapped her arms around herself, her thoughts reeling. "Why are you here today, telling me this? Why now? Why didn't you tell me when I first saw you that night in the graveyard?"
He sighed. "I was going to stay away from you, because the sodding irony of finally having a soul is that now I know how much better you deserve than me. I didn't want you to think I was just trying some new trick to win you back. But then Dawn said that you had found out about the money I'd been putting into your account, and had accused her of messing about again." Buffy started guiltily. "Just rank ignorance on my part, pet," he confessed. "I don't know a whit about bookkeeping. I had no idea you'd find out so quickly."
"But..." Buffy was beginning to hate the whiny sound of her voice, and the way she didn't seem to know any word but why. He knew what she meant, though. He always knew.
"Because I hurt you, and I'm sorry. To the end of my days I'll be sorry. I would give my life - again - to be able to take back that one day. Or ten minutes of that day. Or only the few seconds where I decided that forcing myself on you would make you want me again." He looked into her eyes, accepting his burden of guilt. "But I can't. I can't go back and change the past, and I know that sorrys can't ever be enough. All I can do now is go on, and try to be better than I was.
"This is part of it. You need the money; I'm not taking it back. If you don't want to spend it because it's from me, that's fine. Put it into a college fund for Dawn, or buy her an extravagant Christmas present or something. But I give you my word it's my money, honestly earned."
"What would you know about honest work?" Buffy cringed inwardly at the cynical tone she heard in her voice, but couldn't stop herself.
His smile was sad, acknowledging her censure. "Same as you've learned, pet. You do what you have to do - no matter how menial - and you do the best job of it you can, so you can take care of the people you love."
Her breath caught in her throat, but she was saved from having to reply by the sudden awareness of just how long she'd been outside. "Oh god, my job. They've probably added my name to the disappeared list and given my locker away by now. I have to go," she said, bending to retrieve the bucket before hurrying over to the kitchen entrance.
"Goodbye, Buffy," Spike said. "I'll not bother you here again." He began to walk back down the alley the way he had come.
She hesitated at the door. He's changed so much - because of me. "Sp-- William?" she called, and he turned back to her. "I can't love you, but... I can forgive you. I do."
Peace blanketed him; his shoulders settled under the weight of the gift she had just given him. The image of her in the doorway blurred and threatened to run down his face.
"And... I do care. I can't ever have too many friends who care about me as well." Her voice faltered, and she looked away. "If you want... I could use some help patrolling after work tonight. If you don't have... other plans."
His answering smile outdid the sun for brightness. "I'll be here."
True to his word, he was at the door waiting as she locked up at the end of her shift. He held her backpack while she wrestled the heavy door closed and manipulated the code lock.
"I thought we might head to Restfield tonight," she said, as she accepted the pack again. "I haven't done a sweep through there as recently as I should have."
"Whatever you think is best, pet - love - ah, Buffy." He grimaced. "Sorry."
"It's all right, I don't really mind that much. I know it's mostly just a habit. Though pet always makes me think of someone's dog." She smiled, and looked up at him thoughtfully.
He ran a hand nervously through his hair at this inspection. "What? Have I sprouted horns now or something?"
"No, it's just... you look so different with darker hair. Older."
He snorted. "It's not the years, it's the mileage."
"Did it bother you, when I called you William, before? I won't, if it does. It's just that... Spike doesn't really seem to fit you all that well anymore."
"You can call me anything you want, love," he replied softly. "I like the sound of my name in your mouth."
She decided it would be best not to address that response, and so led the way without speaking further. He followed her in silence, always a few paces behind.
Buffy set her pack on a convenient headstone just inside the cemetery gate and opened it. "I have your coat, if you want it."
The lovely Slayer trembled beneath him, her coffee-and-milk skin darkening further where bruises were beginning to form. Dark brown eyes looked up at him, and suddenly there was no fear anymore, only a longing for death to finally put an end to all the loneliness and pain. He'd been watching her for months preparing for this encounter. Vampires had taken the man she loved more than any other; now she would let one take her too. She'd earned a more honourable death than most - she had fought him gamely to the last. He took her face gently in his hands as he would caress a lover, and she closed her eyes. Before fear could claim her again, he had twisted her neck sharply. The breaking bones had sounded like gunshots in the enclosed space of the subway car. He'd taken no blood from her. Her coat, however, was a victor's trophy he wouldn't deny himself.
Spike pulled the worn leather duster from the bag. It was permeated with memories of what he had been, and what he had wanted to be. "No. It looks better on you. You should really see about getting the sleeves shortened, though," he said softly, as he held it out for her. Buffy hesitated, but let him draw the duster over her arms to settle comfortably on her shoulders. He smoothed the lapels gently. "I told you her story. This coat once belonged to a warrior, you know. Now it does again."
They put conversation aside for a time as they turned to the business of hunting, and they moved together as though they'd been training for weeks. When she needed an axe for a demon instead of a stake for a vampire, she put out her hand and his was there to hand off the weapons. He knew her every move, having studied her for so long; first to kill her, then to woo her. Buffy knew she ought to find the notion creepy, but instead it seemed... comforting, somehow. Like the coat had been, it was something that just felt right. She'd had to move in to save him a few times - his reflexes were nowhere near what they had been - but he was a match for most of the individual graveyard denizens they encountered.
If only their entire relationship had been built on how well they fought vampires together, she would have welcomed him back with open arms. But he couldn't help but keep offering her his whole self; a gift that was too painful to hold and too fragile to simply let fall from her hands.
They found themselves leaning up against a low wall near the edge of the graveyard after a while, pleasantly tired and not too dusty. "Can I ask you a question?"
"You don't need my permission."
"What made you fall in love with me?"
Spike's brows knit as though he were facing Final Jeopardy and trying to decide how much to bet. "You burn. Twice as bright for lasting only half as long. I was reminded again of how bright you are just today when I saw you in the alley. You were so beautiful there in the sunlight. Like you were on fire inside."
"Oh please. Covered in oil and smelling of grotty burger grease?"
He shrugged. "Didn't notice. Doesn't matter. You're always beautiful to me. So am I a moth drawn to a flame? Do I have self-destructive urges? Probably." He kicked idly at a clump of dirt. "Don't ask me questions I don't have answers for. All I know is that as the feeling grew it consumed me, and there wasn't a single thing I could do about it. But if I can tell you anything else, I'll trade you truth for truth, Slayer." When she declined to offer another question, he asked the one that had been foremost in his mind the whole evening. "Why am I here?"
It was her turn to look puzzled. "That's kind of deep, isn't it? For the middle of the night, I mean."
He smiled. "That's when those questions are traditionally asked - in the dark night of the soul, when we're farthest from God. But what I really meant was, why am I here with you? Why did you ask me to come patrol with you tonight?"
Speaking of questions without answers... "I think..." she drew out her answer, hoping the words would make sense when they came, "that I wanted to face you in a place where I was comfortable. A place where I knew I was the one in control, so I could see what's changed."
"To test me. Test yourself dealing with me."
They moved to sit together on the dew-damp grass, leaning against the convenient backrest of a doublewide headstone. Beloved Husband... Beloved Wife... He declined to point out this irony to her, having come to prefer his body mostly unbattered, and waited long for her to speak again.
"I guess I didn't really believe it until now." She spread one hand across her belly in an unconscious imitation of an expectant mother's protective gesture. "I know when vampires are near, I can just feel them - and ever since we... since last year, I was able to tell you apart from all the others. Not just vampire, but Spike's near." She twisted viciously at several helpless strands of grass that sprouted from a crack in the stone.
"But now," her face bore an expression of confused loss, as if she couldn't understand why the absence of this sensation was something she regretted. "I... can't feel you any more. And I suppose I should really be glad for you, but..."
"Didn't know what we had 'til it was gone," he said woodenly. "I always felt you, too. Of course, most vampires would - you frigging glow, love - and since there's only one Slayer around here lately, it had to be you. And now that I'm just William the Wanker again... It's better we don't feel it any more. Won't go leading us into the mistaken sentiment that there's any special connection between us. That's what got us in trouble the last time."
"Why are you here?"
"Thought that was my question."
She shook her head impatiently. "No. Why did you come back to Sunnydale? You're human again. You could have gone anywhere in the world, started a new life for yourself."
"Because every night before I sleep I hear your voice crying out to me, over and over, to stop - and I don't." He dropped his chin to his arms where they rested on his knees. "I'm here to pay for what I did to you. For everything I've done to you. You're one of the few who is still alive and able to grant me forgiveness. But all my dead will rise to meet me at the last trump and judge me there. Either I do enough to be granted absolution," he said darkly, "or I burn."
His pessimistic mood shook her, and she took refuge in levity. "Whoa. Grim much? You've been sitting around in graveyards too long."
"God's own truth, Slayer."
What do you say after that? Snap out of it? Like I just got over being dead?
Something finally clicked from their conversation of that afternoon. Something that had been nagging at her unconscious all through the final hours of her shift: "When did you see Dawn?"
He drew himself up to begin weaving a lie, but then saw the ice and steel in her eyes and knew it wouldn't do. Nothing but the hard truth would do from now on, if he ever thought he could be of any use to her, ever have even a portion of her trust. "She came to the crypt the day after I first saw you. Invited me to dinner. It... wasn't really possible to say no." He'd begun to slide irresistibly again into thoughts of suicide; soon even Clem would have been no obstruction to achieving his goal. He'd willingly damn his soul again, just to ease the pain of being alive.
And then Dawn had blown into the crypt and brought sunlight with her. He had clutched at her like a drowning man suddenly desperate to live. Maybe it was that she was still, underneath everything, the Key, the raw creative power of the universe that denied chaos in all its myriad forms. Or maybe, more simply, it was just that she was a seventeen-year-old girl for whom despite everything the world still held bright promise of happiness.
Hard eyes surveyed him yet. "And then... she asked me to come back. Teach her some fighting moves and in exchange she'd teach me how to cook. It's been... fairly regular, since then. That's how I got your banking information, too." He met her gaze squarely, willing her to see that he'd left nothing out, was attempting no deception.
She smothered the fizz of laughter that wanted to rise inside her, like a soda opened on a hot day. How dare he make her laugh at a time like this. Still... The blind leading the blind, Dawn teaching Spike how to cook. She reached deep inside and made herself stone. "I don't want you seeing her anymore. The two of you should never have gone behind my back that way."
He nodded, not a flicker of protest in his eyes. "Knew it wasn't really right. Had to end as soon as you found out."
She carried on, intent on convincing herself as much as him. "Because what would happen if Mrs. Kroger or someone else from Social Services came over on one of their little surprise visits and found you there alone with her? How could I explain some unrelated guy in the house with my underage sister? It's bad enough I have to work evening shifts all the time and can't make supper for her or help her with her homework, or..." Her voice trailed away in distress.
"Buffy," he said softly. "I do understand. You only want what's best for Dawn. I was being self-indulgent, because she brings a light into my life that I didn't have before. I'll stay away. My word on it, if that still holds weight with you."
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, from under lowered lids. She demonstrably loved her sister more than her own life, but still couldn't really understand how Spike might want to go out of his way to spend so much time with a teenage girl. Unless the alternative were so awful... "Is it... hard? Being human again, I mean."
"Human or vampire, I'd probably still... It's the soul makes it all difficult, see? It's one thing to prance about a vampire, saying 'ooh, look at me, I'm all evil', quite another to look back and know how monstrous and detestable a thing you truly were."
Buffy was chilled by the self-loathing she heard in his voice. Her own voice seemed stopped up somewhere in her chest, at least, that's what she thought the pain was.
"I hear them all the time now, the voices," he went on. "The children are the worst. Used to lull them until I could get them somewhere where no one would hear them, then set them to screaming - it sharpened the taste, I always thought. At first I just wanted to die, hearing their screams again, and this time knowing there was no one but me to blame."
Her hand crept over her mouth to stifle the gasps of horror and grief that shook her shoulders.
"I still think about dying, but it comes and goes, now. Know what keeps me around, most days?"
Oh god, I'm sorry. I can't be responsible for you along with Dawn and all the rest of the world. I just can't, it's too--.
"It's the thought of the expression on Dawn's face, the wounded look in her eyes if she knew I'd given up so easily. So many men have just walked out of her life: your father, Angel - even though she had the good sense to dislike the grand poof - soldierboy... I couldn't bear it, if I became just another man who disappointed her. Likely she'd draw me back from the grave to haunt her."
Her thoughts were writ plain on her hurt face, and he felt endless regret as he added, once again, to her pain. "In order to disappoint you, love... you first would have had to believe in me."
He got to his feet and brushed stray blades of dead grass from his jeans, then wordlessly offered her a hand up. He released his hold as soon as she had stable footing. "Be sure to tell her thanks for everything from me, and that I promise to keep in practice with the cooking."
She didn't follow as he headed back to his crypt, thinking vastly important thoughts like the nature of good and evil, and what he might have for dinner.
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