DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Too bad.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike has gotten fired from the club for putting Mack in the hospital, while Buffy has learned that his chip is malfunctioning…
She hesitated, one hand over the door knob, the other clutching the stake she’d crudely fashioned in the dressing room back at the club. Her bones ached, not from physical exertion but from the barrage of doubts and fears that had attacked her body ever since she’d discovered what Spike had done, and the sense that she was somehow watching from outside herself, that this was all part of some crazy nightmare, was overwhelming. Everything had been so good…Spike had told her he loved her, saving her from an unrequited disaster of a relationship…no life and death decisions to be made…even the promise that she wouldn’t be alone anymore, that he would stay, no matter what. Now, it was crashing down around her ears, broken rubble tearing at her flesh, trying to destroy what semblance of happiness she’d even considered having.
Only one thing was making this any easier for Buffy. In spite of their vociferous objections to the contrary, the Slayer had refused to let anyone else accompany her back to the apartment, blocking out their arguments that if Spike was in fact dangerous, she was going to need all the help she could get. Giles in particular had been adamant about leaving her to her own defenses, and it wasn’t until she threatened to tie them all up and leave them in the dressing room for Lombardi to find, did they back down. Of course, she couldn’t look any of them in the eye, shame at how foolish she’d allowed herself to be coloring her face in hues she was unable to hide; it wasn’t until she was in the hallway that she could even let the impending tears fall down her cheeks.
When Willow had come rushing after her, Buffy had wiped away the wet tracks, turning to face her friend with grim determination. “Not that it will make any difference,” the redhead had said, “but Spike had a really good reason to go after Mack. And even though he could’ve and really wanted to, he did deliberately choose not to kill him.”
She didn’t let on otherwise, but as the Slayer stepped away from the young witch, she felt the first flicker of hope begin burning in her gut. It did make a difference---a small one---and maybe, just maybe, she wouldn’t have to kill another man she loved after all.
Tentatively, Buffy pushed open the door of the apartment, not even sure if Spike was going to be inside or not, her stake poised and ready just in case. Please don’t make me use this, she begged silently, hazel eyes sweeping over the darkened room, peering into the shadowed corners, hunting for something---anything---out of the ordinary. She didn’t know what she was expecting, wasn’t even sure if the vampire would even be here, but the stillness that greeted her was disconcerting, a mockery of the intimacy it had sheltered only a few hours before, and the young woman felt her heart sink even lower.
“Spike?” she called out. Was she expecting a response? Did she really think he’d just jump out of the shadows and announce his presence? She was sure of nothing anymore, and wouldn’t be until she could talk to him.
The door to her bedroom stood open, lending the lounge the only bit of illumination it had, and Buffy tilted her head, a tiny line etching itself between her brows. Although it was moonlight and not coming from artificial means, she could’ve sworn she’d drawn the curtains before they’d left for the club earlier. That meant…
Her feet carried her to the doorway, the stake hanging loosely at her side. Inside her chest, her heart was pounding against her ribcage, threatening to break free and go skittering across the floor, and she inhaled deeply to try and steady her last remaining nerve. It had been a long time since she’d been this anxious about an encounter with a vampire, and the fact that it was Spike…only made it worse.
He stood before the window, forehead leaning against the glass, forearm pressed to the pane over his head, staring out at the twinkling lights of the city. The muscles on his bare back stood out in chiaroscuro relief, the pale luminance of the night sky causing his skin to glow as if from some inner light. Her heart leapt at his icy beauty, while at the same time sinking, the encroaching reality too raw, too near.
There was no tension in his body, no fear, and when he spoke, the hypnotic rumble of his voice seemed surprisingly serene. “Been a long time since I’ve lived in a place like this,” he said. “Dru always had a taste for the exotic. This would’ve been too mundane for her.”
“When were you going to tell me?” Buffy’s tone matched his as she struggled to keep it steady.
He didn’t even look at her, his sapphire gaze drinking in the skyline. “Does it even matter now?” She saw the corner of his mouth lift. Was he actually smiling? “I think it’s something to do with bein’ up so high. Really gives a bloke perspective.”
“Tell me what happened.” It was all she could do to hold back the “please” she so desperately wanted to add.
“I’d say that’s pointless since you’re here to stake me anyway.”
Buffy looked down at the weapon in her hand. He hadn’t even looked around, had known without needing to, yet acted as if it didn’t matter…totally at ease…resigned. Her thin fingers loosened around the wood, hesitated, and then, with a flick of her wrist, she tossed the stake onto the bed, far enough away so that neither of them could get to it easily. “Tell me what happened,” she repeated.
It was only then that he moved, straightening with that feline grace that so mesmerized her. The moonlight caught the platinum curls of his hair as he tilted his head, turning it to gaze at her, eyes fathomless as he stood there in silence, drinking her in just as intensely as he’d just been watching the city. The Slayer felt the familiar tingle of electricity down her spine, and mentally chided herself. Keep it together, she thought. You’re not out of the woods yet.
“He tried buying you,” he said. “Offered me cash on the spot to back off.”
“So you beat him up.”
“Show me a bloke who’d’ve taken the dosh, and I’ll show you a prat who doesn’t know what love really is.” The vampire started to take a step toward her, then stopped, shoving his hands deep into his pockets instead. “It was instinct, Buffy. That’s all.”
“It shouldn’t have been anything,” the young woman argued, her tone hardening ever so slightly. “That’s the purpose of the pain chip, remember?”
He couldn’t help the grin. “Well, guess that’s just a bonus for me, huh?”
“No! Not a bonus! This isn’t a good thing, Spike, and standing there laughing about it is not instilling me with confidence here.” She folded her arms across her chest, suddenly cold. “When did you know it didn’t work anymore?”
“Only when Red turned green around the gills, and let me say, not her best color.” He sighed. “How much of the third degree are we going to do tonight, luv? ‘Cause gotta say, it’s startin’ to lose its appeal.”
“Spike, as long as we’re still talking, you’re still alive. Or dead, or undead, rather.” God, she hated the semantics of it.
“Whaddaya want me to say? I wanted to kill him. I didn’t. End of story.”
“What about killing in general?” she pressed. “How do you feel about that now, knowing you can do it? For that matter, why aren’t you out there right now sucking the populace dry? Why bother coming back here at all?” The Slayer’s anger was starting to rise, her frustration and hurt bubbling to the surface, unable to stay contained in that tight little box she kept locked up deep in her gut. He was being so casual about this, like it didn’t make any difference, like what he’d done had been the most natural thing in the world. OK, yeah, at least now she knew the why of it, and part of her---a really small, non-feminist part---actually thrilled knowing there was someone who’d react in that kind of way just for her. But that didn’t make it right, and it didn’t make him safe, and it sure as hell didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous.
For the first time since she’d arrived, Spike looked annoyed, rolling his eyes. “That has got to be the stupidest bloody question you could’ve asked,” he said wryly.
“Oh, really?” She was shocked at his response, and, OK, very slightly amused. Leave it to Spike to throw her for a loop. “And what makes it so stupid, oh blond and annoying one?”
The first use of her casual sarcasm didn’t go unnoticed, but the vampire didn’t let the fact that he noticed it register in his sculpted features. “You are either the most thick-headed bint I’ve ever known, or you’ve got the worst short-term memory this side of Sunnydale.” He shook his head. “A few hours, and you forget everything I said to you. Isn’t that just peachy. I said I wouldn’t leave, luv, and I meant it. Not that it seemed to make an impression on you, from the looks of it.”
Buffy frowned. She couldn’t let him do that, not now, not when lives were at stake. “Just words, Spike. They’re just words. Your actions speak a helluva lot louder.”
He had closed the distance between them before she could blink, strong hands gripping her upper arms, and as much as she wanted to yank herself free, she felt frozen, locked under that impassioned blue gaze, caged within the tide of the anger that was now rolling off the vampire’s nude torso. “Just words?” he growled. “I’ll give you just words.” His nostrils flared. “Action. I defended the honor of the woman I love. Not. Wrong.” The vampire’s eyes danced with errant fury. “Action. After getting fired for doing the right thing, I came home to wait for that same woman, because that’s what I’d promised her always to do. Again…Not. Wrong.” His gaze sank to the tremor in Buffy’s bottom lip, transfixed by its delicate curve. “Action. I deliberately left myself open to let you stake me ‘cause I knew you had to feel safe. So, you tell me. Was that wrong?”
“Safe?” She wrenched herself from his grasp. “You’re a killer, Spike. You expect me to feel safe around you, knowing that any minute you could turn around and attack me?”
“Not that hard, Slayer. I’ve done it every second since I realized I loved you.” When his hands reached up to grab her again, Buffy’s reaction was automatic, one arm knocking them away while her other fist connected with his abdomen. He grunted in surprise from the contact, and before he could think, the vampire’s leg shot out, foot extended as his heel crashed into her knee.
The pain was excruciating, crushing against his skull, and Spike grabbed his head as the young woman collapsed to the floor. She watched in horrified fascination as he grabbed the edge of the bed, a stream of English curses filling the air. He was either the world’s best actor, or…
And relief coursed like a painkiller, numbing her from the worry, and doubt, and fear, acting like a shot of morphine direct to her soul. She’d never been so happy to see someone in such pain, and the irony of that started off a series of giggles that quickly overwhelmed the Slayer, choking her breath as she struggled to her feet.
“I’m glad you find it so fuckin’ amusin’,” Spike growled, giving his head one last shake before straightening. “Think I’ll set myself on fire for an encore.”
Buffy fought for air, wiping at the tears that seeped from her eyes. “It’s…a joke…this whole…painting…”
The vampire’s eyes narrowed, waiting for her to regain enough composure to actually make sense. She better not be saying what I think she’s saying, he thought.
“It’s playing with your chip,” she continued. “And playing with your head. Letting you hurt people from this world, but not from ours.” Her face visibly softened. “Once we get back to Sunnydale, everything will go back to normal again.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing,” he muttered.
“Do you want me to stake you? Because I’m thinking, you’re acting like it’s a big fat yes.” She frowned, puzzled. “You have no idea how I felt when I found out about Mack, do you?”
“Got a pretty good idea,” he murmured. “I knew Angelus, too, remember?” He took a step closer. “But I’m not him, and the sooner you realize it, the happier both of us are goin’ to be.” He had already forgotten the pain, realizing now that he had her, had gained the stay of execution he didn’t think he was going to get.
“You have to play nice until we get out of here,” Buffy intoned, eyes glued to his advancing form. “I have to be able to promise Giles that there won’t be any funny I–got-bit-by-my-puppy injuries showing up.” Her breath caught in her throat as his hand reached up, fingertips skating down the side of her neck, tracing the line of her collarbone.
“If I recall correctly,” he said, head leaning in so that his lips could follow the same path, “you like it when I’m not nice.”
“Don’t…change the subject…” she gasped, her skin suddenly aflame.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” and his mouth found its favorite pulsepoint, sucking at it gently.
“I’m serious, Spike.” With more will than she thought she possessed, Buffy grabbed his platinum curls and pulled his head away, holding him at arm’s length to stare up into his face. “The last thing I want to do is kill you. God, do you have any idea how badly I needed you to talk me out of it when I walked in here? But we’ve got to lay some rules, and the second you break them, I’ll do it. I did it to Angel. I’ll do it to you. Understand?”
He just looked at her for a long second, his cerulean gaze thoughtful, lips slightly pursed. “I thought not havin’ the chip work meant freedom,” he finally said. “’Twasn’t ‘til I was on my way back here that I realized that that meant bugger all if I didn’t have you.”
In spite of her resolve, she smiled. “Spike, you are the only person I know who can use the word bugger in a sentence and still make it sound romantic.”
“All part and parcel of the Big Bad package, luv.”
Willow was wiping the last of the make-up off her face when there was a knock at the dressing room door. “Come in!” she called, reaching for another tissue.
His bulk loomed in the entrance, and the young witch couldn’t help her smile as she caught him in the mirror. God, I am so glad my boyfriend has a reflection, she thought, and then blushed as she realized how she’d just referred to Gino. Not my boyfriend, she hastened to remind herself. Just a nice guy who happens to like me, who I spent a good part of this morning kissing, who I really like, who…OK, who am I kidding? Boyfriend.
“You want a ride home?” he asked.
Home. That meant her apartment with Lola. Not Buffy’s. Which was too bad because she was dying to find out what had happened there, if her friend had actually staked Spike or not. “That’d be great,” she replied.
“Can we…talk for a minute first?” His black eyes darted around the room, wondering if they were alone.
Something about the seriousness of his tone stole the smile from Willow’s face, and she pushed the empty chair at her side closer to him. “What’s wrong?” she asked as he straddled the seat.
“A lot of stuff’s come down tonight,” he said, eyes fixed on his fingernails. “And you know I’m not good with the brain business, so I need some straight answers from you. As my…friend.” He wanted to say more but the nerve failed him. Better safe than sorry.
“Whatever you want.”
He cleared his throat. “You know Mack’s in the hospital.” The redhead nodded. “You gotta know…I think Spike did right. And if it’d been me, and someone tried to pay me off, I’d’ve done the exact same thing.” He held up his hand to hold off her speaking. “I know you think I’m old-fashioned that way, but what Mack did…it’s not right. He may be the boss, but he’s still a wrong number, and nothing you’re going to say to me is going to convince me Spike did something wrong.”
There was a long pause while Willow waited to see if he was going to add anything further. It was obvious that he’d been practicing his words, and she could see how hard this was for him. The last thing she wanted to do was make it worse. “You know, if I hadn’t been there to stop him, he would’ve killed Mack,” she said softly. “You think that’s right?”
“I…think…Spike would do anything for Buffy. They just got that kind of love, you know? And I could see how he could get pushed far enough to do…that.” Gino stopped, finally looking up at the young woman opposite him. “Spike and I got lots in common. And just because we both work with our fists and not our heads, that don’t mean we’re not men of honor. And I gotta make sure you see that, ‘cause I don’t want you thinking I’m just some dumb mug who doesn’t know right from wrong.”
“Wait a sec. I’m not done.” He took a deep breath, running his thick fingers through his dark hair. “I know I’m not as smart as Harris, or got as much dough, or even talk as good, but I do know I’m a better man. And I want to know why, after what he did to you---after how he hurt you---I get stuck at the door while he gets to come on back whenever he wants.” The bouncer exhaled loudly, the relief that he’d actually managed to get it all out washing over him like a hot shower. It had been eating at him all night, especially after he’d seen her laughing and joking with Harris at the bar. Before this morning, he would’ve just taken the hurt home and drunk it away in a bottle of bourbon, but now, with that small flame of hope she’d given him---you’re my guy, she had said---he needed to get it out.
Willow reached forward, setting her hand on his leg as if the physical contact would somehow ease her guilt. This had nothing to do with Spike, or Buffy, or what had happened; this was about Xander, and about some history she knew nothing about, and about a gentle giant’s deep-seated feelings. “I’m just going to have to be apology girl for a while,” she said with a small smile. “Because you have no idea how sorry I am for making you feel this way.”
His hand inched downward, hesitating, jerking to a stop before starting again, finally coming to rest on hers, engulfing it as his thumb stroked the side of her tiny wrist. “And which way would that be?” he asked quietly. “The feeling of making me feel bad, or, you know…the other? Because if you’re not happy about me, I can always back off. You just gotta say the word, and we can go back to the way things were before. Last thing I want is for you to be uncomfortable about me…” His voice trailed off, unable to say the words, but both of them seeing them anyway, hanging in the air between them…loving you.
“Oh, no,” Willow rushed. “I’m happy about it. Honestly.” And, for some inexplicable reason, she was. In spite of what she knew now about the painting, and in spite of how part of her was actually dreading going back to Sunnydale, the young witch was over the moon about Gino and the relationship she had struck up with him. I never realized just how much I needed someone to want me, she thought. Or how great it would be to want someone else just as much.
“Won’t happen again,” she vowed, and in that very second, meant every word of it.
She knew she was going to have to get up soon and draw the curtains, but nestled between the warm sheets of her bed, Buffy could only stare out the window, watching the sky’s colors begin to shift, lightening in hues no man could recreate. Things still weren’t completely of the good, and she wasn’t so blind that she didn’t see that. Somehow, she was going to have to convince the others that Spike wasn’t a real threat, which meant making their relationship very clear to the gang, using words that Giles was probably going to hate, like love…and trust…and understanding. It wasn’t going to be pretty, but it was necessary, and would have to happen as soon as possible. It was the only way they’d be able to work as a team to find the safety that would get them home.
Although both of their bodies had been more than willing, Slayer and vampire had tacitly agreed not to make love as they climbed into bed, choosing instead to curl against each other’s naked bodies, molding themselves together as if in doing so, they could drive away all the events of the past few hours. It frightened her how easily she had given in to believing him, trusting his arguments, needing to hear him say them. But he’d been right, on so many levels, and it was time Buffy started actually hearing what he had to say, trusting in her instincts. That was supposed to be part of the whole Slayer package, right? Intuition about good and evil and all that crap? All along, she’d been listening to reason, or to Giles, or to what everyone else deemed good and proper, and outside of actual slayage, ignored those gut feelings in dealing with emotions, or relationships. Well, from now on, she vowed silently, that’s officially stopping. I’m the Slayer. If I can’t trust my own instincts, what can I trust?
To be continued in Chapter 23: Come Rain or Come Shine…