The Letter

Chapter 17:
A New Beginning?

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

She stood in her room looking at the little grey box as though it might open suddenly and bite her. Taking a deep breath, Buffy picked it up and snapped it open. I'm not promising anything. They were a gift, and I'm only being polite by letting him see me wear them. But her fingers still shook as she slipped the delicate wires into her ears.

She turned in front of the mirror to inspect her appearance before heading downstairs. The long suede skirt swirled around her legs and the matching low boots. She reached up to adjust the high cowl of her white sweater around her neck and to tuck her hair casually behind her ears. The amethyst earrings sparkled brightly, even in the room light.

Dawn was bustling about in the kitchen with a purposeful air when she came down. Something smelled wonderful, and Buffy was forced to admit that Dawn was probably becoming a better cook than she would ever be. "Is there anything I can do?" she asked.

"Everything's under control," Dawn insisted, despite her flushed face to which tendrils of dark hair were clinging. She wrestled a covered dish into the oven and closed the door. "There. Nothing left to do but wait, now." She turned to inspect her sister.

Buffy suddenly felt as though she were the younger one, an impression only amplified by the fact that Dawn seemed to have grown four inches taller than her, all in one summer. She looked down to pick invisible lint from her skirt.

"You look great!" Dawn gushed, abruptly dispelling the illusion. "Are those some of Mom's earrings?"

"No, ah... Spike gave them to me. That is, he left them at the front door with a note one night," Buffy admitted. "I thought... I should let know that I liked them."

That's probably not all that you should let him know. Mind you, that means you'd have to admit things to yourself first. Dawn leaned in to have a closer look at the earrings. They were really gorgeous, she decided. "Can I borrow them some time?"

"What? No!"

Just then the doorbell rang, startling them both.

**********

He took a deep breath, and rang the doorbell. He wasn't nervous, the collar of the turtleneck was just a little tight and he ran two fingers under it to adjust it. It wasn't black, it was dark green, thank you - though admittedly you had to stand in strong light to make the distinction. Likewise the trousers - not jeans - the girl at the thrift shop had assured him they were 'charcoal', and looked very nice on him, too. But the new shoes pinched; he missed his boots. Hearing women's voices on the other side of the door, he stood up straighter, cradled the wine bottle in one arm and tried to look unconcerned, desperately afraid they'd see through his charade.

Buffy opened the door and suddenly felt her heart stutter. It wasn't William at the door; it was Spike, all peroxide blond again and with attitude to spare. He was just standing there in the doorway; cool as the other side of the pillow. He tilted his head to one side with that look she knew so well, the one that said 'come fuck me'. Buffy cut off that thought sharply before it could go anywhere. Big scissors, thank you very much.

And oh god, the longing in his eyes as he looked at her and straightened, drawing breath to speak. He positively blazed, bathed in the light of the prosaic 60-watt incandescent in the porch fixture, alabaster skin seemingly lit from within. She thought it would burn to touch him - had burned, that desire; pain and pleasure inextricably mixed - and she couldn't face that fire again. Something of her thoughts must have shown in her face and she cursed it for a traitor, because he abruptly looked down and away. She felt an almost physical jolt as he turned his eyes from her, shuttering that incredible inner light, damping himself down so as to not torment her further.

His first thought, as always, was how beautiful she was - and how unconscious she was of her beauty, which only increased it. His heart skipped a beat, and picked up again in quicker rhythm. She's wearing the earrings. I have no right to expect anything - but she's wearing them.

"Evening Niblet," he said, looking instead at Dawn beside her in the doorway, though these were surely not the words he had originally intended. "And Happy Christmas a bit early if I don't see you again before the day. I understand we have you to thank for dinner tonight. I brought some wine I thought might do - maybe between us we can convince big sis to let you have a taste." He proffered the wine bottle to Buffy as though it were a peace offering. She held it awkwardly before her like armour against the intensity of his regard.

"I don't see what the big deal is," Dawn complained. "It's just spoiled grape juice."

They all laughed perfunctorily. "Takes a while to acquire an appreciation of some things is all," Spike observed. Buffy's hands tightened on the bottle. That was - was not - a comment directed at her. Her stomach roiled, and all at once she wasn't sure she could face even the thought of food.

Spike hesitated in the doorway. "May I come in then?" he asked quietly at last, and for a blinding moment Buffy was sure that he'd found someone to sire him as vampire again, a return to the inexorable killing machine he'd been, so that he could revenge himself on her.

She shook the thought away impatiently; Slayer senses detected nothing... not the slightest sign of the undead about him. Close her eyes, and she wouldn't even know he was there. His power over her was sourced entirely in her heart, and in his. "I didn't think you'd need an invitation anymore," she observed.

"The Powers may not require it, but manners still do," he replied.

"Then come in. We're glad you could come over tonight," said Dawn, as though daring Buffy to contradict her.

With a duck of his head that was almost apologetic, Spike came through the door, and Buffy shut it behind him. For a few awkward moments the three of them stood silently at the base of the stairs. Since neither Spike nor Buffy seemed to want to be the first to speak, Dawn jumped in. "Come on into the kitchen and we can open the wine." She led the way.

Once there, Dawn took the bottle from her sister's unresponsive hands and examined it closely, tearing away at the foil over the mouth of the bottle. "Jeez, Spike, this is California you know," she complained. "Couldn't you have found a bottle with a screw cap? I don't even know if we have a corkscrew."

Spike raised one eyebrow as though insulted, and Dawn laughed. With that, the ice in the room seemed to thaw slightly, though they still weren't speaking. Buffy rummaged in a small drawer beside the refrigerator and wordlessly presented Dawn with the corkscrew, which she promptly handed off to Spike along with the bottle.

He set the screw tip into the cork and twisted, feeling it bite deep. With it firmly seated, he braced the bottle with one hand and pulled. Nothing happened.

"Do you want me to--" Buffy began.

"No," he replied shortly, and pulled harder, finally being rewarded with a squeaking slide and pop as the cork slid free. Dawn ducked out momentarily, returning with crystal from the dining room cabinet.

He poured two glasses. The wine was golden and light-filled; something delicate and fruity that wouldn't be too overwhelming for an inexperienced palate. He wasn't sure if he meant hers or his own now. In any case, red wine would have looked too much like blood. He set the bottle back on the counter and picked up the glasses, handing one to Buffy that she accepted without comment.

"Go. Out. Go have your drinks and sit and talk, or something. I'll call you both when everything's ready." Dawn insistently shooed them out of the kitchen and into the living room. They were helpless to resist her, and ultimately found themselves staring at each other over the coffee table littered with Dawn's teen gossip magazines.

Talk. All her words had dried up, and seemingly Spike's had as well. Oh, there must be an apocalypse coming; Spike has nothing to say. He had always been at her before, to talk to her, to get her to talk to him; she had never thought there would be any situation where he would be at a loss for words.

"Why?" Unable to manage anything else, she waved vaguely at his hair. She sat at one end of the couch and he settled carefully at the other, far from her. He sipped at his wine deliberately before setting the glass down on the table.

"Why am I coming all Spike at you?" She nodded. "Trying to prove a point, I suppose. I could tell that you were setting up Spike and William in your head as two different men, trying to deal with how you feel about them. We're not different. That story about how a vampire is completely different from the original man? That's utter bollocks. Everything he did wrong is something I've done wrong. I know you don't like hearing that, but it's true. I'm the one who hurt you so many times, and now I'm the one who hopes he can be forgiven someday." He shifted position towards her on the sofa and reached for her hands, and she set down her glass in turn to permit the contact. Suddenly the floodgates had opened, and he couldn't stop.

"This isn't about trying to get you to love me now. Last year I encouraged you to turn away from your friends, telling you that you came back wrong, all to bring you closer to me. I knew you were using me, and I didn't care, because as long as you were, you would stay with me. I knew I could have only scraps from you, but I still came begging. I just wanted someone to love me - or someone that I could pretend did."

What was it I told Angel? 'Love makes you do the wacky'? I guess you don't have to be human for that to be true.

"And before you ask, I have thought about it. I can't go to Angel. We never really got along or had shared anything - except, on occasion, Dru's favours, and you know how well we managed that. He was born common and was desperate to ape quality; I was born to privilege and was equally desperate to shed it. And I always resented like hell the way he kept me - us - under his thumb. And now that I have everything that he's ever wanted..."

She drew back her hands, frowning. "That's damned arrogant." I knew this whole thing was too good to be true.

"I just meant - not you. I wasn't suggesting that--" he spluttered self-consciously, and struggled to recover. "I have a soul - but even better, I'm alive. Human again, when he's still a vampire, fighting the bloodlust and the demon constantly for control. I don't have to like him to respect how he must have to wrestle every day with that. And all because I don't know any better than to beat my gums in front of a powerful wish-granting demon. Angel could only see it as a vast cosmic joke at his expense; that I should be granted his fondest desire." I can be with you in the daylight, even if you never love me.

Buffy curled her hands into her lap thoughtfully. "It wasn't really as simple as that though, was it?" Without her conscious will, her mind cast back five years to remember all they had gone through, trying to win back Angel's soul. Jenny's reconstruction of the lost Gypsy curse; her death and the destruction of their first orb of Thessula; Willow's first steps into a darker world where immense power tempted her at every step. And in the end, none of it had mattered; though his soul had been restored, Angel's blood still had to be spilled to close the door on Acathla, sending them both to hell - only hers had been here on earth.

All of that for a soul, held for only moments before she had banished him; and now here was William in front of her, newly made man. Surely such a gift would have had a monstrous price. Another weight seemed to settle in her heart. She'd made him do this. She hadn't chained him up in his crypt and demanded he choose, but she was just as responsible as if she had. And he didn't have any idea. He'd faced who knew what tests and torments, all because he wanted to change for her. Would she ever bring anything but suffering to the people she cared about? Whoa, where did that come from?

"Well he certainly didn't clap me on the back and say 'clearly you are worthy'," Spike said, trying to lighten the suddenly oppressive mood. The truth about his trials wasn't something she ever had to know. Being Buffy, she'd find some way to blame herself for what had been entirely his own idea. Not the brightest idea I ever had, but why mess with tradition? He continued his story brightly. "In fact, I got the distinct impression that he was disgusted with me for taking such a backward step. He was a demon, after all, and to one like that, the desire for a soul must seem decidedly recidivist. Probably thought he would make it worse for me by making me human again, too. You know, 'man is but dust', 'mortal coil' and all that sodding nonsense? Hadn't the heart to tell him he'd actually done me a good turn. Didn't get it quite right, but it's actually worked in my favour."

She couldn't let it alone. So many things done in her name that she had no control over; she at least had to hear the whole truth from him. "William, I have to know. You said that you wanted your soul back because you loved me; I need to know what I made you do."

Bloody hell! She's still going to take it that way. "Since when did I become someone you could make do things, pet?" he asked with a smile. "You didn't make me love you, and you didn't make me go off in search of my soul, either. The former I just fell into one day..." Memories of a dream and the shocked surprise that had followed when he realized his heart knew more than his head. Head took a while to come around, but it had been inevitable from the very start. "And the latter was-"

A car horn sounded outside, cutting off his words. Dawn rushed past with a backpack, snatching up her coat from the peg. "That'll be Megan's mom. She'll give me a ride back tomorrow morning after the sleepover."

"Sleepover?" Buffy exclaimed. "You never said anything about-"

"It's a teacher work day tomorrow, remember? Gotta go! Everything's in the oven or on the stove ready for you. See you in the morning, Buffy." With that, Dawn was out the door and down the walk to the waiting station wagon before her sister could muster even the beginning of a protest.

Spike stood, walked into the dining room and took in the dimmed lights, the candles, and the table set for two with Joyce's heirloom china. "I think we've been set up."

"I know we have," Buffy said, coming up behind him. She ran her hands through her hair in a gesture of frustration then closed them into fists at her sides as she recognized what she was doing. "Damn her for pulling a stunt like this."

"She probably thought she was doing us a favour; giving us more time to talk alone." He cleared his throat pensively. "If this situation makes you uncomfortable, I can go," he offered.

"No. That's not necessary. You were expecting to get dinner, so that's what you'll get. You should, since it was probably your money that paid for it."

"I told you - that was a gift." I wish you didn't make it sound so much like a terrible punishment. "Don't put yourself out on my account. I can always head back to the crypt, get the chef to whip something up."

"Chef?" Her brow furrowed in confusion.

"Yeh, you know. Boyardee?"

Buffy nearly exploded with laughter, clapping one hand tightly over her mouth to muffle it at the thought of Spike and ravioli from a can. She could just picture him, one dark brow raised as he contemplated the intricacies of the nutritional information label. She almost had it under control when the thought occurred to her that he might prefer beefaroni. "Oh, I'm sorry!" she gasped, when she finally could breathe evenly again. "It's not really funny."

"Yes it bloody well is," he laughed in turn. "Evil vampire returns from quest; having found source of bad jokes. Slayer dies laughing," he declared in his best American TV news anchor voice, sparking another round of helpless hilarity from her.

Soon she was leaning against the wall, one hand vainly attempting to stifle giggles while the other held her aching stomach. "Please, no more! It's your most evil plot ever."

Works a lot better than any of my other plots ever did. Too bad it took me this long to find out. The sound of her laughter was the music of heaven to his ears and he wished it would always be this easy to make her happy.

He waited to speak again until she calmed once more and was wiping laughter-induced tears from her eyes. "Why don't we just set the kitchen table with your regular dinnerware and eat in there?" he suggested. "Then we won't have to worry about manhandling the fancy crockery, and it will be that much easier to clean up." Seeing the relief in her expression that she didn't even try to hide, he knew he had made the right decision.

Oh love, you deserve to be taken out for the most romantic dinners in the most elegant cities in the world. You should wear nothing but the finest designer clothes and be the centre of attention wherever we go, and the world and I would dance to your every whim. Instead, all I can offer you is Corningware on the kitchen table and help with the dishes.

**********

He did his best during dinner to keep the conversation light and free of controversial topics. So instead he told her stories of glittering cities he'd seen around the world - without ever referring to his own activities there - and then of Clem's adventures while he'd been gone. He made her laugh out loud three times - he kept count.

When they were done, both Spike and Buffy reached for the serving dish at the same time, then dropped it in surprise to clatter loudly on the table. Buffy laughed nervously. "How about you clear the table, then I can wash and you can dry."

"All right."

"Maybe next time... the dishwasher will be fixed. Since we... came into some money," she offered tentatively.

He tried hard to contain his elation at the thought that he might be made welcome another time, and only nodded. "Whatever you decide to do with it, love," he said levelly. "I just want to help if I can."

She moved to the sink and twisted at the taps to fill the sink with hot, sudsy water. Spike decided not to press further, and began to gather up the dishes, stacking them beside the sink for her. He took up a dishtowel and stood ready.

When she handed him a plate his fingers brushed over hers and they both froze at the contact. Her hazel eyes widened as she looked up at him, and he knew a look equally deer-in-the-headlights had taken up residence on his own face. He took the plate from her gently and set it in the rack before they ended up dropping this one too, then laced his fingers in hers.

She was mesmerized by the sensuous rasp of his calloused thumb across her palm. "William," she breathed, her mouth gone suddenly dry. "Spike, I--"

"I love you, Buffy." It always came back to that. She was the true north for the lodestone of his heart, no matter how the world spun and twisted under him. He bent his head slowly, giving her every chance to withdraw, to tell him no, but desperately praying that she wouldn't. His kiss was no more than a butterfly wing brush of his lips across hers. Memory surged...

She clutched at the back of his neck, driving her mouth onto his. After the first few panicked seconds, he was returning her kiss fiercely, forcing her mouth open, their tongues struggling against one another. Strong fingers scratched and clawed at him, leaving welts that would heal in hours - except in his memory, where he would trace her every touch over and over again in lonely days to come. He drove her back roughly into the wall and she lifted her legs to encircle his waist, holding even more tightly to him. Heaven was within his grasp, within the circle of his arms in the person of this one small woman...

Reminiscence faded as she drew back suddenly and looked up at him, a deep vertical crease forming between her brows. He knew that look; seldom had it gone well for him after that. He had always thought of that maddeningly endearing crease as her 'Buffy want' line, and in this case what she probably wanted was him, out the door - or out of town, more likely. He strongly resisted the urge to run his thumb over her forehead and smooth the furrowed skin there; instead, he licked his lips slowly to fix the taste of her once more in his memory. I am not going to fuck this up.

"Please," she murmured, her eyes downcast. "Just go. I can't... I can't do this any more. I won't. There's just too much pain in it - for both of us. I told you that I've forgiven you, and I have... but I can't ever be with you." He could see clearly that the only memories his kiss triggered in her were of his brutal attack last spring. Her screams echoed again in his mind, drowning out the other voices there.

Except that I already did fuck this up, long ago. Before his mouth could do any more harm to the woman he loved, Spike turned, pulled open the back door and was gone into the night. If he'd stayed a moment longer, he would have tried to cut out his own heart with one of her kitchen knives. 

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