The Letter

Chapter 27:
I Love a Parade

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 heard the loud music blaring before she was even in sight of the crypt and relief weakened her bones. Well now I know he's still alive. And it could be worse - it could be country music now. That would mean a complete breakdown.

I'm full of regret
For all things that I've done and said
And I don't know if it'll ever be ok to show
My face 'round here
Sometimes I wonder if I disappear.

"Buffy, hey!" Clem exclaimed over the music, as he opened the door. "It's been a long time."

"Hello Clem. I haven't forgotten that I still owe you that kitten, you know. I've just been a little busy lately."

"I know you're no welcher, Slayer. Whenever you get a chance." He waved an understanding hand, but didn't move out of the doorway. "But I was just on my way to--"

"Is Spike here? I want to talk to him."

"Well, he... uh, had to go out for a while," Clem stammered. "I don't know when he'll be back."

Buffy leaned forward and kissed his wrinkled cheek. "You're a terrible liar, Clem. Don't ever change." She pushed gently past him into the candlelit crypt. "Spike? I need to see you."

And I've done you so wrong
Treated you bad
Strung you along
Oh shame on myself
I don't know how I got so tangled up

She found the CD player, hit stop, and the band died without even a whimper.

"What if I don't want to be seen?" asked a harsh voice in the sudden silence.

"Spike, I--" Now that she was here, it was more difficult than she had expected. She pulled a pendant on a thin silver chain from her pocket and passed it through her fingers from hand to hand, nervously.

"Is that Anyanka's amulet you've got there, pet?" he asked resignedly as he emerged into the dim light. "Am I finally going to get what I deserve? Is that why you've come?"

She stepped forward and held out the chain with one hand. "It is, yes. And you should get what you deserve," Buffy said, the amulet spinning and winking in the candlelight where it hung from her fingers. "I wish... I wish that we would always tell each other the truth."

Spike stared at her, but felt no different. Nothing had changed; he felt no compulsion to speak.

Buffy sighed and let the silver chain slip free between her fingers to pool with a metallic clink and hiss on the stones. "Anya's human again. And it's going to be permanent this time." She stepped forward towards him and the amulet's stone - now nothing more than cheap glass - ground to dust under her foot. "It doesn't change what I wish, though. We just have to make it happen ourselves, instead."

He advanced to meet her, challenging her. "You really think you want to know all about me, Slayer? Do you really think you have any idea what I am, or what I've done?"

She nodded. "I have to know the truth, Spike."

Behind her, Clem spluttered something about his errand. They both ignored him as he bolted from the crypt.

Buffy steeled herself to hear the worst atrocities from Spike's century of darkness. Whether he'd admit the truth of it or not, the Watcher's Council had documented his activities well for most of that time, and she'd seen the records. But she still needed to hear it from him.

To her surprise, what came pouring out of him was not the story of his years as a vampire, but the tale of the last year. In his words it became a story of deception, betrayal, cowardice and lust, culminating in a naked account of Allie's last days and his retribution against Tonio.

She paled before the caustic torrent of words, but didn't look away, and didn't flinch.

"What kind of man am I, to do things like that?"

Buffy was quiet for a long time before she replied. "One who's in pain and pushed beyond his breaking point," she said softly. "Striking out at anything and everything that's hurt him. A man who cares so much about helping someone else who's suffering that he nearly destroys himself. A man who's afraid that all that he cares about is being taken away from him."

"Now I can use fear as my excuse? Buffy, I was afraid my whole life. Of the opinions of my peers, that no woman would love me, that I'd fail my mother... I welcomed my death, do you understand? Only to find that, irony of ironies, I had all new fears. That I'd never belong, that Dru would leave me... and finally that you'd never love me."

"So you went and got a soul - and more."

"I thought at last I'd found a way out of that hole. Found a way to be a man, at last; to do something useful with the extraordinary gift I'd been given. To be able to help people. Instead, all I found was that I destroy everything and everyone that I touch, and it's all gone to ashes in my mouth. Nothing but blood and ashes..." His voice was bitter and hard, and brooked no thought of possible forgiveness. "Fat lot of good the soul is. I've betrayed, I've hurt and killed--"

"A soul isn't a chip, Spike," she said, frustrated that he wasn't hearing what she meant. "It can't make you do anything; it can't stop you from doing anything. If you want to kill and hurt, then you will, because you're not listening to it. You haven't had any practice at that for a century, so I guess it's not surprising that you're finding it difficult. But don't give up."

"Be easier for both of us if I did."

"You think this is easy for me, watching you try to destroy yourself?"

"Then walk away. You don't have to watch."

"No. I won't do that. I can't. Not after everything you've done. You went and got a soul," she repeated. "For me."

"I didn't do it for you; I did it for me. When you told me you could never love me because I didn't have a soul, that's when I decided to search for one. After all, if that was the only thing standing in the way, when I came back with it, you ought to fall into my arms. And having one, I found that everything had changed."

"You didn't. You told me you loved me, long before you had it."

"You were in pain and you were confused - and I wasted no time trying to take advantage of that. Tried to convince you that being with me could make you feel something again. Tried to tear you apart from your friends so that I'd be the only one you'd have left to turn to. Encouraged you to do things you would never have done on your own--"

"Stop making excuses for me!" she shouted angrily, cutting him off mid-sentence. "Damn you, will you just listen to me for a minute?"

"Listen?" he snapped. "I've done nothing but listen to you for years. Listen to you tell me I'd never be the one, that I was beneath you. Even with the soul, I didn't understand what you were feeling, at first. But I've learned my lesson well, this year. The demon's an excuse; the real monster's here inside me." His fingers stabbed at his chest like knives. "Do you understand me now? I believe you! I finally see in myself just what you've been seeing." He drew a deep, shuddering breath. "I tried to cut this feeling out of myself, to spare you this grotesque..." Words failed him. "Let me make something out of what I am. Let me die for you!"

Her answer, when it came, was whisper soft, quiet as a mortal blow driven home with a fine blade. "No."

He hung his head, shoulders slumping at this ultimate rejection. Not even good enough dead.

"No," she went on. "It isn't that easy. I want more. I'm going to take everything you have, use you to help me save the world again and again, drain you dry until you think that the most horrible death would be a mercy. Then I'll ask you to go on." Her voice shook. "Maybe I'll never be able to give you back enough. But maybe I can give you everything. Don't waste what you are, dying for me. Live for me."

Spike looked up again, not daring to breathe. The Slayer's rage was gone from her voice; only the woman's anguish remained. "I- I don't--" he stammered.

"This isn't a contest to see who's been more cruel," she insisted more gently, intent on making her point while she had the chance. "We both know by now exactly what hurts the other the most."

"No...." He had to summon all his courage just to remain standing before her. If I let myself believe you can still care about me after all I've done, then I have to believe the other things you've said to me...

Buffy looked deflated, as though his unexpected surrender had stolen all the fire from her argument - but she pressed on. "I just want you to go into this with your eyes open - to know what you're getting. And if I stop now to debate who's the worse person, I'll never be able to say it." She looked down at her feet. "I'm not good with words, like you. I made Willow help me with what I needed to say to you, and she listened while I practiced it - so don't interrupt me or I'll have to start over." Taking a deep breath, she looked up and locked her eyes to his.

"Last year, I used you like you were my own personal sex toy. My excuse was that I wanted to feel, and any feeling - even revulsion at the choices I was making - was better than the horrible numbness, doubting that I was even alive.

"Then when I called it off, it wasn't because I realized what I'd been doing to you, that it was wrong, but because I couldn't bear having to hide it from my friends, the mortification of having them know what I - we - were doing." She blinked back tears for a moment.

"I'm so sorry. You're a person, not a thing - you showed that enough times over the past few years - and you didn't deserve to be treated like that. But I did it, and I'm sorry, and nothing I ever do from this point on can change what I've done..."

"Buffy," he protested incredulously. "I tried to rape you."

"Yes, you did," she said evenly, not looking away from him. "I've never felt more terrified or degraded in my life. Did you think I deserved it for what I'd done to you?"

Spike couldn't hide his horror at the suggestion. "God, Buffy, no! I--"

"Good. Because I'm not sitting around thinking that just because something horrible happened to me that I suddenly don't have to be accountable for how I acted. This isn't some contest about whoever has suffered the most getting a 'get out of guilt, free' card."

"Not an innocent party here, Buffy," he protested. "I was a vampire."

"You didn't have a soul then. You didn't know that what you were doing was wrong," she insisted. "I should have known better."

"Who's making excuses for whom now? I knew perfectly well what I was choosing to do - but it just doesn't matter when the demon's riding you. Buffy, I'm a serial killer, thousands of times - ten thousand times over. I enjoyed it."

"It wasn't you."

"Fuck that for a game of soldiers! It was me! If it wasn't, why is it I can hear every one of them now screaming for my blood? See every one of them dying again in my dreams? Otherwise we'll just make this into another sad round of 'after vampires get souls, they can't be held responsible for their former actions on days with a y in them'. The things I tried to do to you, alone--"

She cut him off again. "Are not at issue here. I swear, if you say 'but Buffy, I hurt you more,' I will deck you."

Spike paused, just to take in the glory of her, her face flushed with the heat of the argument. "Wouldn't dream of it," he said, finding the courage to smile a little, at last.

"All those things we did to each other - I don't want to count them or weigh them out to find out who's worse. I want to forget them. All of them. We start over." She sighed. "I know you've done terrible things to other people. It's not my place to forgive you for that, but I hope you'll let me help you find a way to deal with it."

He felt light-headed, as though his veins ran full of strong wine. "So, back when you said you want me to 'know what I'm getting'..." He didn't dare finish the sentence or follow that thought to its logical conclusion.

"I thought I'd come watch the parade," she said simply.

His eyes narrowed and his head tilted to one side in confusion. "Come again, love?"

Buffy walked forward, her eyes intent only on him. "You told me once that when I finally knew what I wanted, there would probably be a parade. You remember, 'seventy six bloody trombones...'"

"Why is it that you Americans always have such trouble with an English accent?" He tried weakly to tease her, but he trembled, caught in the confluence of terrible hope and terrible fear. She stopped before him, laying one hand gently on his chest.

"I know what I want. And a very good friend has only recently reminded me that when you know what you want, you grab it with both hands--" A second hand joined the first and curled into the fabric of his open shirt. "--and don't let go. Listen to your heart and don't let anyone take it away from you.

"You know what I think. You understand me. You see so deeply into me. My friends love me, but they don't really see more than they want to. You are the only person who sees me for exactly what I am, and loves me anyway. Even Giles couldn't do that for me, in the end.

"It scared me, that I liked... the things we did together." Her cheeks flushed, and she had to look away for a moment. "But I know now, that's part of what I am. You knew it before I did. You always knew what I needed."

He shook his head, denying it all, lost in terrible memories of the time he had clearly not known, but she stilled his head with one hand on his cheek. "No. You know what I am, and what I have to do, and it doesn't bother you. There's no hiding from you. It's like some kind of psychological X-ray vision. And if I let myself, I know I would be able to do the same, about you. I can't think of anyone I'd trust more to try to make me happy, in spite of knowing everything that you know about what I've done. And I want to be the one to do the same for you - for however long I've got."

"I don't deserve to be happy," he insisted.

Buffy sighed. "As far as I can tell, no one does. Doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying, though."

"I don't deserve to have you," he said more forcefully.

"Then we're even; I don't deserve you either. Maybe neither one of us is such a prize. But sometimes we get a second chance."

"A gift of grace," he murmured, understanding dawning in his eyes. "'Do not weigh our merits, but pardon our offences. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable.'"

"What's that?" she whispered.

"Nothing, love. A childhood prayer."

She leaned into him, and he let his arms slip around her in a most fragile embrace. "You know so many things. You've done so many things."

"Mostly things I'd rather you didn't know about," he commented sorrowfully.

"You've seen the whole world, and I... I'll never see any of it, except maybe on the travel channel. But you can make me see it, with your words."

If I could, I'd find a way to show you the world, Buffy. I swear I would.

"And you listen." She smiled. "Most of the time, anyway."

Listen. A woman's gentle voice caressed his memory, and he shivered.

"You knew. Years ago, when Oz left... you knew that Willow was hurting, when none of us could see it. You told me I could only heal my pain by living. I wouldn't be alive if it weren't for you. I don't know if it will last, but Xander and Anya are going to try again, because of you - because of what you told him. Funny, isn't it, that none of us ever realized how much we needed you to be there for us?"

She looked up at him, her face only inches from his, and her warm breath grazed his cheek with a caress like a sweet summer breeze. "I need you. When you left, you told me you were trying to find a way to become an honourable man. You are that man. And in some ways, you've always been. Just because we weren't capable of seeing it doesn't mean it wasn't true."

His own breath seemed caught up somewhere in the knot being tied tightly in the centre of his chest, and he wondered for a wild instant if asthma would now become part of his human condition. "Buffy..." he finally managed to gasp.

"Shh... I'm not done. If I don't say this now I don't know when I'll ever have the nerve. I want you." She finally stopped tormenting him with her closeness and leaned in to kiss his cheek, tasting the salt from past tears not yet washed away.

"Buffy, please," he whispered, breaking away. "Don't sing me the same song again. You've wanted me before, and there was nothing but--" Please don't. You can break me with a word.

"William... I love you."

But if you break me, then you can remake me...

"I love you," she said again. "And not as my second choice. Not out of pity, or as a reward for all the good things you've done, but in spite of all the horrible things. I love you because it's selfish, because I'm so tired of always being alone, even when I'm with other people, and I want you beside me, always."

And she was kissing him again but now he was kissing her back, their mouths warm and wet and their tongues slipping eagerly together and he was drowning in the taste of her, the scent of her surrounding him. All the other senses they had were subsumed to taste and smell and touch. His arms were around her and he was lifting her to set her gently on his bed but never letting his lips lose contact with hers.

His hands lifted her shirt and crept over the sweet expanse of her skin, one slipping up to cup her breast through the soft cotton of her bra.

"No," she said suddenly against his lips, and he flinched away as though burned. A pained look of understanding crossed her face.

"I'm sorry. I only meant that I don't want to make love to you for the first time in this place surrounded by dead things." She took his hand, and gently, deliberately, placed it on her breast again, covering it with her own as she leaned in to kiss him once more.

"Come home with me. Lie down beside me tonight so I know you'll be in my arms when I wake up tomorrow."

His eyes widened, and his heart nearly stopped in his chest.

"You see?" she said, with a gentle smile. "I've even been known to listen myself, from time to time."

**********

They made their way back to the house slowly, talking in inconsequentialities. Spike kept his hands in his pockets as they walked, not yet daring to test their rediscovered intimacy.

As they came around the last corner onto Revello Drive, Spike halted so abruptly that Buffy was several paces ahead of him before she could stop as well. She looked back at him questioningly.

"How will Dawn feel about all of this?"

Buffy linked her arm through his encouragingly. "Dawn and Willow and I have had a chance to spend some time together." Seeing his alarmed look, she quickly added: "Don't worry, we edited things appropriately. Mostly she's just relieved that you're not dead or vanished somewhere." She pulled his hand from his pocket, took it in hers and squeezed it tightly. "And she didn't mean what she said to you at the hospital. She was just afraid of losing you. Like I was."

Spike relented, and let Buffy lead him down the street again. He balked a second time, though, when they reached the front steps. With his hands again thrust deep into his pockets and his shoulders hunched, he was the very picture of uncertainty.

"It's going to be all right," Buffy said softly. "Come on." She opened the door and called inside. "Dawn? We're home." With a smile, she beckoned him up the steps.

Spike entered hesitantly. Dawn clattered down the stairs, all coltish limbs and flying hair, and skidded to a stop in the foyer. "Spike," she breathed when she saw him standing there. Her face broke into a wide smile. "Welcome home." Before he could react, she had enfolded him in a firm embrace. His arms tightened around her involuntarily in return. "I'm sorry I said what I did," she whispered in his ear.

"Doesn't matter," he returned

When he could free himself, he stepped back, the better to take in her smiling face and laughing emerald eyes... on a level with his own? "When did you get so tall?" he wondered out loud.

"Last week," Buffy informed him. "We went shopping."

"Heels!" Dawn squeaked happily, turning out one ankle so he could admire her new shoes. She laughed, bobbing her head and shrugging with delighted awkwardness under his attention in a way that took him back to the day they had met.

"Dawn's got a date tonight," Buffy said with an indulgent smile.

"A date?" Spike repeated incredulously. "We had best take up some sparring again, Bit, in case your lads need to be reminded to mind their manners." He stroked her flushed cheek and tucked a long dark strand of hair back behind her ear. The bandaged cut on her forehead somehow served only to emphasize her allure. "Because when they see what a beauty they've got..." Dawn blushed even redder, and looked down.

"What, prettier than me?" Buffy protested, smiling. But the intensity of the look he turned on her from under lowered lashes made her breath catch in her throat.

"Do you have everything you need?" Buffy asked Dawn, in an effort to keep from pulling Spike into her arms on the spot. "Money for the movie and snacks, and enough to get home if you need it? House keys? Cell phone?"

Dawn sighed in fond exasperation. "Yes, mom."

"And?"

"And, just in case." Dawn held her bag open in front of them, and rummaged inside to produce a smoothly worn and twisted piece of wood. "You're sure you're okay with me borrowing Mr. Pointy for the night?"

"Only the best for my little sister. Home by midnight, now. No excuses," Buffy admonished.

"Huh. Like the two of you would even notice." Dawn smiled.

Buffy suddenly knew that she could not walk up those stairs with Spike while her sister was watching, or was even anywhere in the house where she might be imagining what was going on up there. Giving herself a firm but futile inner rebuke for this attack of prudish shyness, she turned to him. "How about a glass of wine while we wait for Dawn's date to show up? I still have that bottle you brought us..." before Christmas - I am an idiot. What if it's spoiled in the fridge after all this time?

Spike's glance flicked from Buffy to Dawn and back again. An understanding smile brought creases to the corners of his eyes. "I'd like that, yes."

They retreated to the kitchen together, followed by Dawn's satisfied and knowing grin. Buffy snared two wineglasses from the cabinet on the way. While she wrestled the cork out of the bottle and filled them, Spike's attention was caught by a deep and narrow triangular gash in the countertop. That's a knife mark. His fingers traced it, and he all at once knew with terrible clarity what must have happened there.

Buffy saw the direction of his gaze and shook her head, simultaneously warning him away from mentioning it and letting him know it was to be forgotten with the rest of their difficult past. He turned away gratefully to accept the glass she handed him.

"Um... I guess we should have a toast," Buffy proposed uncertainly. "How about 'to us'?"

"Strength and courage," Spike replied. Before she could ask him what he meant, they heard Dawn calling goodbye to them. They returned their own goodbyes, and then heard the satisfying slam of the front door behind her. Buffy turned back to him, the question in her eyes.

"A wise philosopher once said 'being loved deeply by someone gives you strength; while loving someone deeply gives you courage'," he said. "You've given me more courage than I'd ever dreamed was possible; I hope you'll always accept strength from me."

It took her a moment to puzzle out his meaning, and then she smiled and they both lifted their glasses to drink.

"You give me courage too," she whispered, setting her glass back down. "Come with me and let me show you."

Their nearly full wineglasses abandoned on the counter, he followed her upstairs. 

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