The first thing she did was call Giles.
"Are you all right?" he asked, his worry peeking through the exhaustion in his voice. "How's Willow?"
Buffy glanced back at the sleeping form of her roommate. "Will's out like a light," she said, barely able to stifle her own yawn, "and I got a feeling I'm going to be hitting the hay as soon as I get off the phone with you."
"Xander called. He and Anya arrived back at his place safely."
"What about Spike? Did he come through chained up in your bathtub?" She couldn't help the smile on her face as the image flashed across her mind's eye. Maybe they would be able to find another use for those chains
There was a pause. "Buffy "
She knew immediately something was wrong. "What?" she demanded. "Tell me he's OK, Giles. I didn't go through all this for him not to be OK."
"I don't know how he is. He's not here."
She felt the chill settle over her bones. "Where else would he be? He was living with you when we went through." Though she fought the instinct, Buffy couldn't help but let her eyes slide to the window, and the sunlight streaming through it. "You don't think "
"I'm sure he's fine," Giles insisted. "This is Spike. You of all people should know that he's very resourceful. I wouldn't be surprised if he showed up on my doorstep any minute now."
"I guess he does know where the blood train is," she mused, still not convinced, but not willing to consider the alternatives at this point. "Will you have him call me the instant he shows up?"
She just knew he was rubbing his eyes behind his glasses as she heard him sigh. "Of course. Get some rest, Buffy. It's been an incredibly tiring day."
As she hung up the phone, the images of Spike catching fire in the California sunshine tumbled through her head, melting into a collage of blond hair, black leather, and blue eyes, before settling into dust. It couldn't end like this; what happened to the happy ending she was supposed to get? The fates wouldn't be so cruel as to give her Spike, only to take him away again in a sick sense of irony, would they?
She shook her head. Nope. Not going to think of it like that. Sleep. That's what she needed. And she'd be up as soon as the phone rang. Because he would call. He would come back. He was supposed to never leave.
There was no joy in either girl's shoulders as they walked slowly through the campus, books tucked in their arms, faces bereft of smiles. Though the occasional person greeted them as they passed, their responses were perfunctory, their true thoughts elsewhere.
"I can't believe how much I have to make up," Willow said. "But at least they're all buying the virus story. I've gotten so much sympathy from my professors, it's scary."
"At least they know who you are," Buffy groused. "When I went up to get the missed work, I had two different teachers ask me if I was even in their class."
"Ouch." The redhead bit her lip. "What happened with Riley?" she asked gently. "I saw that he cornered you while I was talking to Dr. Walsh."
"I think it was more of an ambush," she complained, the all-too recent memory of their conversation still annoyingly fresh in her mind. "I decided to play the grown-up card and tell him I couldn't see him anymore."
"And he asked why."
"Did you tell him about Spike?"
"Yep. Not fun, let me tell you, especially since it wasn't that long ago I was telling him Spike didn't even exist and that I'd only pretended to be engaged to yank his chain." Buffy sighed. "I told him Spike and I had had a fight which was why I was pretending not to know him, but now we're back together, so obviously Riley and I couldn't date anymore."
"He was OK with that?"
"No. So I switched decks and starting playing my I'm-a-flake cards."
The Slayer rolled her eyes. "He said he was from Iowa and he liked corn." She bristled when Willow stifled a giggle by covering her mouth with her hand. "I'm glad my lovelife amuses you so much, 'cause it wasn't exactly a walk in the park for me."
The young witch deliberately frowned, pursing her lips together in an effort to keep the laughter at bay. "This better?"
"Much. So anyway, I said I thought I was more of the snowflake variety---."
"Iowa gets snow."
"Thanks. Know that now. Somehow I forget all these little details when my mouth starts going." Buffy shook her head. "After that, I just stopped tiptoeing around the whole issue, said it was over and walked away. How much you wanna bet I fail psych now?"
They strolled along in silence, and Willow had to physically bite her lip to stop from making a comment about letting Riley go so quickly. They had been back for over a day now, and still no sign of Spike. Buffy wasn't talking about it, but the redhead knew the pain she was going through, could see the disappointment in her friend's face every time anything regarding the painting came up. But she also knew that hope still flared there, and maybe it was a good thing the Riley thing happened when it did. It proved to Willow at least just how serious Buffy was about the blond vampire.
Spike wasn't the only one missing in action. When they'd finally woken up that morning, the first thing the young witch had done was ask her friend what had happened those last few minutes before everyone came through the painting. It was then that she learned about Gino's attempts to come with them, and her hopes had been running rampant ever since she'd opened her eyes in her own bed. The first thing she'd done was check to see if there was a phone listing for him, and when that turned up nothing, she'd gone to the campus directory. Still nada. It didn't necessarily mean he hadn't made it, but as the day wore on, Willow's expectations were lessening, her mood sinking, until now, she wasn't sure what to think.
"Y'know what I was wondering?" Buffy mused, her face thoughtful. "The whole heart's desire thing of the painting. I mean, I know I got mine and I'm pretty sure Spike got his, and you were on the happy train there for a while as well, but what about Giles? And Xander, or Anya? How come they didn't get anything?"
"I'm not so sure about Giles," Willow offered. "I think if it had played out, something would've happened with the singing stuff."
"Because he's secretly dreaming of being Bing Crosby?" She shook her head. "Thank you so much for starting those nightmares again."
"And Xander's easy. He was so miserable about everything that happened, I don't think he would've recognized his heart's desire if it came up and slapped him in the face with a dead fish."
Buffy almost smiled. "OK, Miss Insightful, what about Anya?"
There was a pause and then Willow shook her head. "Nope. Not a clue. One of the great mysteries of life, I guess."
The library loomed in front of them, bringing with it the brakes on any flights of fancy, returning them to the all-too real world of college and homework. Neither girl really wanted to be there, but the pressures of needing to get caught up dictated their actions, forcing their feet to close the distance between them and their academic future.
It took a second for Willow to notice when Buffy halted, hazel gaze fixed curiously on the library's front doors. The redhead turned her head, following her friend's line of sight, and realized then that it wasn't the building's entrance that had captured her attention.
He looked impossibly large sitting on the bench just outside the door, hands folded awkwardly in his lap as he watched the students come and go. Every few seconds, those hands would ball into fists before stretching wide, only to return to their folded position in front of him.
Her heart was pounding as she slowly walked up to him, books clutched tightly against her chest, her throat suddenly dry, and stopped just a few feet away. "This seat taken?" she asked, all efforts to make it sound casual consuming her every spare bit of energy.
Gino's head jerked up at the first sound of her voice, and the look of relief that creased his face was only matched in magnitude by his smile. "You got no idea how glad I am to see you," he said.
Willow slid onto the space next to him. "I think I've got an idea."
"How do you feel? You look tired. Aren't you sleeping?" His black eyes searched her face, one hand automatically coming up to push the hair off her brow, only to hesitate halfway, faltering as he debated its appropriateness, before settling back into his lap.
"Too much sleeping," she replied. "Twenty-four hours worth. It's just exhausting getting back into the swing of things." Her own reach was tentative, a thin hand resting on his denim-clad knee. "What about you? Where've you been?"
"Trying to find you. Do you have any idea how hard you are to find?"
She frowned. "Me? At least I'm in the campus directory. According to every phone listing in Sunnydale, you don't exist. Where do you live?"
"An apartment near where I work. But I got a roommate. Everything could be in his name."
Buffy spoke up for the first time since approaching Gino. "It's not Spike, is it?" she asked, unable to disguise the hope in her voice.
He shook his head. "Nah. Some little guy named Jonathan. I tried asking him some questions when I first got here, but half of what came out of his mouth didn't make any sense to me, so I just gave up." He looked at Willow. "Who's Boba Fett?"
She giggled. "Nobody you have to worry about right now. But, how come you didn't call me?"
"Well, I had work last night---."
"Work? You said that before. You have a job?"
"Yeah. Bartending. Someplace called the Bronze." He blushed. "Girls don't wear very much in your world, do they?" Willow and Buffy just exchanged amused glances as the dark-haired man went on. "Anyways, I thought I'd try again this morning, but I got nowhere trying to find where the student information is. There's no book or anything "
"That's 'cause everything's on " She bit her lip. " computers. And you would have no idea about those. Hence, no call."
"I don't know how you do it." The amazement in his voice sent a gleam of admiration to his eyes. "You got a gadget for everything here. Like, I stopped and got some coffee this morning on the way here, and the mug behind the counter spent five minutes whipping up the milk so that it was all foam. I don't get it; I always thought the milk was supposed to go in the coffee, not sit on top of it. It don't make sense to me."
"So why are you here? In front of the library, I mean."
Gino ducked his head as he smiled in embarrassment. "I figured if I couldn't find your room, I'd just wait at the one place I knew you'd eventually show up. Smartest girl I know's gotta go to the library some time."
As she watched the two talk on the bench, Buffy couldn't help the swell of mixed emotions that ran over her happiness for Willow that she wasn't going to have deal with another heartache sympathy for Gino as he struggled to come to grips with the changes coming through the painting had given him there was even a tinge of jealousy as their growing ease brought lingering touches to the other's person. Where are you, Spike? she thought sadly. And why the hell haven't you shown up yet?
Tucking the stake into the back of her trousers, Buffy hurried along the campus path, head bent, mouth set. Six vamps down, and she still felt the surge of adrenalin pushing through her veins in a heated stream. Contrary to what she'd believed, slaying hadn't worked to distract her; she felt more charged now then when she'd left her dorm three hours ago. Maybe I will go to the Bronze, she thought irritably. I shouldn't have turned down Willow's invitation in the first place if I was just going to end up feeling like this anyway.
Each time her stake had plunged into a vampire's chest, the briefest of contact with the undead flesh in that second before it turned into dust had sent Buffy's senses into overload, shortening her breath, tunnelling her vision, until at one point, she'd considered packing it in for the night just because she feared for her own safety. Last thing I need now is to lose concentration, she thought. And it's all because of Spike. Stupid bleached undead.
Over thirty-six hours, and there was still no sign of him. As each minute passed, she couldn't help but think that the odds of him getting dropped off in the middle of some sunny field, only to explode in a big pile of dust, were growing. For all I know, he's blowing somewhere over Colorado now, she grumbled. Which is probably just as well because if he was here right now, I'd stake his ass for doing this to me.
It was an empty threat, and she knew it, but it didn't stop the feelings from bubbling up into her throat, or the tears springing into her eyes. Angrily, she wiped them away before they could make the fall down her cheeks. Bastard said he wouldn't leave. It wasn't fair. Should've known vampires don't keep their word, even if they do love you. Should've known better than to fall in love with him myself.
As she neared the front door to her dorm, Buffy felt the familiar crawl over her skin announcing the nearby presence of a vampire. Great, she thought. One more slay to just make this a wholloping grand night out. In a flash, the stake was back in her hand, and she froze in her tracks, head turning from side to side as she scanned the lawn, waiting for the demon to show its face. A streak of black out of the corner of her eye caused her to duck, and the Slayer felt the body go flying over her head, rolling to a halt just a few feet away.
"I hope you're not looking for a long fight tonight," Buffy said, "because I'm really not in the mood to drag this out any longer than I have to."
"Actually, I rather fancied a dance."
She felt the air get sucked from her lungs as the vampire straightened, lips curled into that familiar smirk, his blue eyes dancing in merriment. The cut on his face was already healing, a red arc that hinted at the possibility of another scar on that porcelain skin, but other than that, Spike seemed very much his old self. Black t-shirt, black jeans, cocky attitude. It was the missing duster that had thrown her when he'd first arrived. Probably still at Giles', she thought, and then remembered her previous feelings, more specifically, her anger.
"Where the hell have you been?" she demanded.
He cocked his scarred eyebrow. "And hello to you, too, Slayer," he drawled. "For some reason, I thought you'd be glad to see me." His gaze travelled down to the stake she still clutched tightly in her hand.
"Gee, and for some reason, I thought you'd actually have the courtesy to tell the woman you claimed to love that you're alive or dead or, you know, not able to be sucked up by a vacuum cleaner."
He chuckled, taking the few steps to stand before her. "Nice to see you care," he murmured, his head dipping as his mouth trailed over her cheek.
Buffy felt his hands curl into her hips, pulling her against him, the sculpture of his body melting into hers. For a moment, her eyelids fluttered shut, savoring the sensation of his cheek against her, his tongue darting to taste the flavor of the tender skin just below her ear, and the groan rose unbidden to her throat. God, she'd missed him
And the thought brought her crashing back, the reality that he was obviously fine and yet hadn't bothered to see her before now throwing cold water over her excitement. As Buffy pulled away, she relaxed her hold on the stake, sliding it into its place at the small of her back. "Sorry to see you don't," she said. "Or is this how you're seeing us, now that we're back in Sunnydale? We go on with our lives as normal, except now you've got a fuck-a-Slayer free card?"
His smile faded, eyes darkening. "I told you before and I meant it."
"Told me what?"
"I'm not interested in goin' back to the way things were. Thought you understood that."
"Then where have you been?"
His eyes were bottomless as he just gazed at her thirty seconds a minute and then he held out his hand. "C'mon," he said. "Wanna show you something."
Taking it was automatic, and she was walking at his side, heading toward her dorm, before she realized she hadn't even hesitated. So much for being pissed at him, she thought crossly. One little gesture and she was his, and the thing of it was he knew it.
They were both silent as they stopped in front of Buffy's room, and she looked up at him, the tiniest of lines between her brows. "You wanna show me my door?" she quizzed.
"No, I was hopin' for a spot of privacy. Is Red in?"
She shook her head. "She's Bronzing it tonight." Her face lit up. "I forgot to tell you, Gino's here."
Spike nodded. "Good for them," he said, then looked pointedly at the still-closed door before turning back to the young blonde at his side.
The lock slid open, allowing the two entrance, and Buffy watched as Spike closed the door shut behind him. "Are you going to tell me now?" she asked. "Or do we continue playing twenty questions?"
"Ask away." He didn't even look at her, just walked over to her stereo and began playing with buttons.
"Where were you yesterday?"
"Showed up in a crypt alongside that Melinda bird," he replied, intent on the electronics before him. "Bein' as it was still daytime, I spent the day there, waitin' for the sun to go down."
"And last night? Why didn't you come by, or go to Giles', or something?"
He glanced back at her, blue eyes inscrutable. "First off, Rupert doesn't like me so why would I give him a toss? Secondly, I did come by." He turned back to the stereo. "You just didn't know it 'cause you were asleep. Waited until dawn for you to come out, but when you didn't, I headed back to the crypt since I didn't fancy giving Mack the cremation he was so hot for." Music came filtering from the speakers, and Spike's lean fingers quickly scanned across the dial before settling on a particular station.
For a moment, it was déjà vu, the silky tones of the saxophone caressing Buffy's skin with its familiar chocolaty tones, and her breath caught as the blond vampire stepped toward her. "I still fancy that dance," he murmured, taking her hand in his and pulling her against him in sultry rhythm with the radio.
They could've been anywhere back in the painting at the club under the stars and Buffy wouldn't have known the difference. Here, in the circle of Spike's arms, the world around her melted away, leaving her in the warmth of the certainty of his feelings for her. As her cheek pressed against his chest, their bodies moved in unison to the instrumental, and she felt his hardness press into her hips.
"That doesn't feel like dancing," she said, a slight chuckle in her voice.
He didn't answer, just pulled himself far enough away so that she couldn't lean against him anymore. When she looked up to see what was wrong, she was met by his descending lips, taking hers in a kiss that promised tomorrows, tasting of that tangy flavor that was uniquely Spike's. The kiss deepened, lips parting to allow his tongue to slide into her mouth, finding hers in a tangle of fire, swallowing down her very air as his hands slid down the curve of her spine to settle in the small of her back.
Panting, Buffy broke away, hazel eyes darkened as she gulped for breath. "I'm still mad at you," she announced, but the hint of a smile on her lips belied her sincerity.
Spike shrugged. "So what else is new?"
She giggled as he pressed her down onto the bed. "You said you wanted to show me something," she reminded. "If this is it, I'm going to be very disappointed."
His lips pursed in a mock pout. "And here I thought you were just glad I wasn't dust," he said. "Turns out you're a material girl after all." Her jaw dropped, and she slapped good-naturedly at his chest, making him laugh as he sat back. "But, yeah, since you brought it up "
Buffy propped herself up on her elbows as Spike reached inside the neckline of his t-shirt, pulling out the silver necklace he characteristically wore. "Sorry to tell you this," she said lightly, "but I've seen that before."
"No, you silly bint." He leaned forward, holding out the bottom of the chain. "This."
She noticed it then, the two tiny silver rings hanging from the links, and frowned as she reached forward, one finger tracing the circlets. "Know what happened in the painting doesn't mean anything here on the Hellmouth," Spike continued. "But doesn't mean I don't still feel the sentiment. I just wanted you to see it still means somethin' to me, even if it's not on my finger anymore."
"But you have two."
She couldn't read what was churning in those blue eyes as they bore into hers. "Think of it as wishful thinking," he said, and with a half-smile, let the chain fall back against his chest. The vampire began to press forward again, shoulders over hers, only to be stopped by Buffy's hand against his shirt.
"Wait," she said, as he frowned, and slid out from underneath him, sitting up on the edge of the bed. Pulling out the chain around her own neck, she reached behind to undo the clasp, letting it fall into her hand before turning to look back at him.
He didn't ask, but knew, and mirrored her own actions, removing the heavy links, holding it out for Buffy to slowly extract one of the rings before watching her thread it onto her own necklace. When it rested back on the velvet of her skin, Spike couldn't resist extending his own finger to trace its path around her neck, stopping at the hollow in her throat where the ring lay nestled, tremoring ever so slightly as it rested on the pulsepoint there.
"I love you, Buffy," he murmured. "But I wasn't you didn't "
She took her hand in his and brought it to her lips, kissing its palm as she pulled him back on top of her. "I know," she replied. "That's why."
Their second kiss swept both of them into the heat of their bodies, losing themselves from the world around them, oblivious to the song softly filling the dorm room's walls.
It's plain to see
We found, by finding each other
The love we waited for
I'm yours, you're mine
And in our hearts
The happy ending starts
What a lovely world
This world will be
With a world of love in store
For you, for me, forever more
Author's Note: Just a quick thank you to everyone for all the wonderful feedback.
I'm glad that other people had as much fun with it as I did.