Author’s note: This chapter just got too long, so I decided to post a short chapter and then a really long one. I just couldn’t fit everything in, and it now looks like my estimate of five chapters was not accurate.
Chapter 3 1/2
There were a series of thumps from upstairs that made her wince, followed by Dawn’s door slamming, and then a yelp as Dawn grabbed at it too late. She’d grown so much over the summer that she hadn’t gotten used to herself yet, and as a result, she spent the vast majority of her time tripping, stumbling, and knocking into defenseless objects. She’s never going to be a cat burglar, Buffy thought, and stored up the remark for later sibling warfare. A glance out the kitchen door located no trail of debris, so she aimed her next yell directly up the stairs. “Dawn! School!” (That was redundant. Where else would she be going at eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning? The monster truck show?) “Hurry!” (No, by all means, go at the speed of molasses, so I can then have another incredibly uncomfortable chat with your counselor, who looks at me the way I look at cholesterol.)
She turned back into the kitchen, just in time to catch Willow’s sigh. Buffy shrugged in response, rolling her eyes in the age-old gesture of I-was-so-not-like-that-when-I-was-her-age.
“So where did Dawn get the procrastination gene?” Willow ventured. Conversation! Between friends! Look, ma, no hands!
“I’m blaming all character flaws on Dad’s side of the family,” Buffy said. Including kissing vampires? That’s kind of a stretch.
“Good choice.When did you decide to do this?”
“When the support check did not arrive on time for the second month in a row,” Buffy said quietly.
“Oh.” Willow poked nervously at the frying pan’s contents. “So why don’t you call him and---?”
“Too much role reversal for me already.” Buffy squirmed, wishing a demon would choose that particular moment to attack. “I just couldn’t---“ With a thump, Dawn skidded through the kitchen door and stumbled to a stop.
“Couldn’t what? Oh! Omelet? Can I have some?”
“Sure you can,” Willow said, turning the burner down. Buffy contemplated her omelet less state, and wondered if she should be the one doing the cooking. However, Willow was better at it. She eyed her friend carefully, remembering Willow’s disappointment at the whole cookie fiasco the previous evening. Should she praise the omelet, or was it better to ignore it, because it was such a sign of reliability? And why couldn’t Willow just be happy she was good at something? As opposed to me, who keeps kissing this vampire and then getting all---
Willow set a plate for Dawn, then looked at Buffy, standing indecisively at the island. “Buffy? Want some?”
“Sure.” With something like horror, Buffy watched as Willow shrank a little bit. What now? What now? Too casual! She thinks I don’t really want it! “It looks great,” she enthused, trying not to over-compensate. “I wish I could make omeletes,” she added hopefully. Willow carefully cut her a portion, then sat down quietly and started nibbling at her own. Dawn glanced darkly back and forth.
“Are you guys fighting or something?”
“Well, you know,” she shrugged, “You’re acting like Mom and Dad did every time they exchanged hostages. Remember that stage where Mom would have one of us and Dad would----Oh.” At the sight of suddenly stricken looks on Buffy and Willow’s faces, her own face fell.
Buffy and Willow exchanged panicked looks. “No, Dawnie, it’s, uh---It’s, uh---“
“Early!” Buffy blurted. “It’s just so early in the morning for---“
The back door burst open and a smoldering, smoking blanket-draped shape jumped inside, the blanket whirling away to reveal Spike. He was seriously rumpled and had evidently lost interest in buttoning his shirt about two-thirds of the way down. Buffy glimpsed his belt buckle, his belly button, and several inches of muscle before he stopped raking his hands through his hair and frowned at all of them impartially. She had to look elsewhere, certain that further views of his bellybutton would bring last night’s kiss into sharper focus than she wanted. “Where’s my lighter?”
“Huh?” The three girls blinked at him. “Nobody’s smoking here but you,” Dawn said, and then she giggled at her own joke.
Spike cocked an eyebrow at her, then smiled dutifully at the joke. She was so damned cute when she was like this, all coltish and giddy. Pity she didn’t take the trouble to show that side a bit more round Buffy, who could definitely use a few more giggles and a few less responsibilities.
Willow eyed Buffy, then Spike, then her omelet. Once, whatever was going on between Spike and Buffy would have been the subject of many late night discussions, phone calls and patrol conversations. Now her blood momentarily chilled at the memory of hearing Spike’s voice in Buffy’s bedroom. Why hadn’t Buffy mentioned it? What had they been talking about? Had they been talking about her? When had she moved from being partner of gossip to the subject of it? She looked from one to the other. Buffy was regarding the vampire with skepticism, and Dawn was cutting into her omelet with a knife and then picking it up with her fingers. “So…Dawnie, how’s the omelet?”
“Iif reawy goo---“ Dawn gulped, swallowed, and beamed at her. “It’s really good. Are there any cookies left?”
“Oh,” Willow muttered. The cookies had disappeared overnight, but she was somehow disappointed that they had been more popular than her other culinary efforts. Can’t win, she thought. How can I try something new if all they like is the old version? Then she noticed how Buffy was picking at her food and deflated. Great, she doesn’t like it. “Hey, I’m going to get dressed before Xander gets here, okay?”
“Dawn, are you ready?”
“Yeah,” Dawn shrugged. But she avoided Buffy’s eyes.
“Oh, really? I suppose your books are all ready and everything.”
“Well, it takes, like, two minutes to---“
“So why don’t you go get ready?” Buffy prodded. “You left half your homework here yesterday.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Dawn muttered, but she got up and with a curious look from one to the other, flounced away.
For what felt like the first time since Spike had come into the kitchen, Buffy exhaled. “So you’re really attached to this lighter, huh?”
“Yeah,” he said, with a belligerent lift of his chin. “Very.” He took a step toward her, not even seeming to walk at all, gliding on sure and silent feet, completely without his usual swagger. She took a step back before he’d even gotten within yards of her. “Not too many things I appreciate like that.”
“If you say I’m a thing, I’m going to----“
“What?” he purred, very close now. “What are you going to do to me? C’mon, what’s my punishment?” He leaned in to her ear, not even touching her. “Still have scratches on my back from you from where you…” She lifted one hand in a half-hearted slap, but he ducked and caught her hand, then smiled slowly at her before letting go. He lifted his other hand, his gaze drifting up her body and then fixing on her mouth, while she licked suddenly-dry lips. Flicking one lock of hair from the side of her face with just one finger made that entire side of her body seem to break out in goose bumps. She remembered how she’d backed away from him just the previous night, and wondered why she’d even bothered. Not fair, she thought. Just not fair. Her throat was dry, and it seemed like her body was reacting in its own rebellious way, place by place, to his proximity. Not fair at all, and not smart, either, what with Xander due to arrive at any minute. Kissing him, which seemed like a really bad idea in the abstract, suddenly seemed irresistible, with him inches away. The abrupt mental image she got of precisely what it had been like scratching his back made her swallow. Her throat was so dry she could hear a click and she was sure he heard it, because the tip of his nose brushed the tip of hers. “You’re not a thing at all, Buff,” he whispered. The use of the pet name, something he never did around the Scoobies, made her shiver suddenly. She became aware that her nipples were hard, and with a glance down, he noticed it, too. He braced himself with a hand on either side of the counter behind her, and now his chest brushed against hers. She had to swallow again. “But you are lots of different things. Slayer. Ever made a list? Sometimes I try to, when I’m lying there in my crypt, thinking about you. All the things you are. All the things…you do.” Something seemed to shiver inside her, as if every little molecule in her body had suddenly quivered. It wasn’t visible, but she could feel something zip through her, and so did he, because his lashes dropped further, and he got even closer. “So many things. So many…ideas….” He bit his lower lip and leaned in. “Older sister. Friend.” He leaned in very, very close, barely breathing, but it felt like her goose bumps had goose bumps now. She shivered. “Hero.” He looked into her eyes. “To me, that is.” They looked at each other, Buffy warily, but Spike was almost vibrating with the sensation of being close to her again. “What else? Of course, depends from whose perspective we’re talking about. What position you’re in…”
Xander cleared his throat loudly, and they both leaped apart. “Spike, could you be any more pathetic?”
Spike stepped back, face carefully blank and composed. “I could be you,” he muttered under his breath, but it passed right by Xander.
“Give it up, blood-breath, she’s never going to have anything to do with you. Well, unless she has some sort of head inju—“
“Ah, Xander, could you go and see if Dawn’s---“
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m ready.” Dawn poked her head around Xander and raised her eyebrows. Well, aren’t Buffy and Spike standing awfully close together, she thought. Cool! Something to discuss in study hall with Janice instead of that fantasy relationship she’s got going with that stupid football---“
“You ready?” Xander asked grumpily.
“Well, as ready as I can get, considering I’ve got the stupidest---“ Dawn muttered, shouldering her backpack. “---homeroom teacher you can imagine---“
“Well, if you keep saying, ‘stupidest’ that might be why you’re---“ Xander guided her toward the front door, sparing one final glance back at Buffy and Spike.
“Well, more stupid is so clunky, Xander, so I don’t see why I can’t just---“ Dawn opened the door, and found herself confronted by a pleasant-looking middle aged woman. “Uh…hello?”
“Hi, you must be Dawn? I’m Dolores from Social Services.”
“Oh, crap, I mean, uh----BUFFY!” Dawn skittered around the older woman and dashed down the stairs. “I’m late for school, gotta get to school on time, you know…Uh, Xander! Hurry up, okay?” She was practically jumping up and down with her eagerness to get away. If she’d had a tail, it would have been wagging, frantically. When Xander got to the top of the stairs, she dashed toward the car, leaving Buffy and Dolores squinting at the sonic boom she left behind her. They eyed each other uneasily, but Spike provided a distraction by flopping down in a chair in the standard spread-legged guy stance. Buffy was acutely aware of the bleached hair and partially-buttoned shirt, and acutely aware of Dolores’ awareness. “Sooooooooooo…….” He drawled. “Gonna have a chat?”
“Spike---“ Dolores noted the name with a pursing of her lips that made her look like a fish, and Buffy backpedaled. “William…This is Dawn’s case worker. Because she’s been reported by the school for missing classes and stuff.”
Spike leaped to his feet, eyes darting back and forth between the two women. He wiped his hand on his pants and offered it to the bemused social worker, who shook it gingerly and then wiped her palm on her skirt before sticking both hands in her jacket pockets. “Ah…yes…Oh, nothing to worry about with Buffy, she’s a real good mum….very strict….” Buffy raised both eyebrows, and Spike gulped. “But not too strict, not after her mum’s death…” He was slowly and steadily inching toward the kitchen. Once a safe distance from the older woman, he gave up all pretense of dignity and dashed. Buffy reluctantly turned to Dolores, who was frowning at her openly now.
“So…does he sleep here?”
“Oh, no, he’s just a….” The muscles in his arms tensing as he…. “friend.” She swallowed. “He’s a friend.”
“Really. What interesting hair. Who else lives here?”
“My friend Willow.”
“No, that’s all.”
“And Mr. Spike is…?”
“He’s an old friend. From England. He—he’s----“She had a burst of inspiration. “He’s very protective of her.”
“Is that appropriate?”
“Well, he’s like an older brother,” Buffy shrugged. “He’s really like an older brother---you know, like Xander, my friend who drives her to school.” You sound like an idiot, she thought. Just the sort of person who has a sister-abusing boyfriend who bleaches his hair. “We, uh, never had an older brother, so it’s, uh, really nice to have uh, a male role model around.”
“He hasn’t visited since before Mom died.”
“Does he provide support?”
Ah, here’s an old wound, Buffy thought. “Well…”
Dolores finally bent a bit and sat down on the couch. “He’s required to, you realize.”
“Maybe he doesn’t.” Buffy shivered at a sudden chill, and rubbed her arms. “I can’t…It’s really hard to get ahold of him.” Especially seeing as how he’s in Italy.
And we’re here.
“The state can do that for you, you know.”
“I don’t…” Buffy had to sit down as all the strength went out of her legs. It’s not even eight o’clock yet, she thought. Can’t this wait till later, after lunch, when I’m stronger? “I don’t want to do that.” He’ll never talk to me again. Ever. Of course, came the cynical part of her mind, he doesn’t talk to you much now, and at least then you’d have some money. “Please don’t do that,” she whispered.
Dolores looked around, noting the eclectic décor, and the photos. The furniture was polished and curiously scarred, but there wasn’t that much of it, and there were no little luxury items around, either. No stereo, no computer, and an old, dusty VCR. “Miss Summers, are you employed?”
Buffy stared at her for so long that she wondered what she’d said. “No. When I---“ Horror-stricken, she realized she’d almost said, when I was dead….”I was in college.”
“Your mother’s illness interrupted your education?”
“I understand you’ve been having problems with bills and so on?”
“Yes,” Buffy whispered.
Doris got up and peeked through the kitchen door. Spike, sitting at the island and safely out of the way of the sunlight, ground out his cigarette in an ashtray and winced. “Trying to quit!” He exclaimed. “Awful things!”
“Of course,” Dolores said coolly. There were dishes soaking in the sink, but otherwise the kitchen was clean. She turned around and looked back at Buffy, who was sitting miserably on the couch, her shoulders slumped and her eyes huge. “You know, Miss Summers, I could have one of the intake workers at the state employment agency get in touch with you, if you’d like?”
“What?” Visions of scrubbing floors and toilets swam through her head. “What would they do?”
“You might have a better chance of finding a good job if you work with them,” Dolores said quietly. “They can help.” She picked up her purse. “Next Wednesday, then?”
“Okay,” Buffy said. She wondered if Dolores could see her legs shaking as she escorted the older woman to the door. Shutting it very carefully and precisely behind her, she found she had to lean against it for a moment before she could walk to the couch and sink weakly down on it. Next Wednesday. How many Wednesdays would there be? Put on a happy act every time?
My world, she thought. Every now and then the division between her life and world and that of other people threatened to overwhelm her. She felt like she was being pulled thin trying to keep the worlds separate. There didn’t seem to be any way to integrate them, at least not now, with a social worker walking briskly to her office, and a vampire sitting in her kitchen. Her head hurt.
“Buff?” Her eyes were so huge when she looked up at him that Spike was across the floor before she had time for her next breath. He dropped into a crouch at her feet, while she drew shallow breaths. Her reality was vampires and demons, not getting her sister taken away by Social Services. Not their mother dying. She could handle one or the other, but not both. She wished, for a moment, that all her problems could be conquered with a stake. That she had training for. That she could cope with. This she could not.
“Buff…” Spike said helplessly. He remembered too well the aftermath of her last little chat with Willow, and knew that his options were limited. Then her lower lip trembled, and he forgot about planning and plotting and weighing. He cupped her face in his hands, and if anything, she looked even more miserable. Some people you can have sex with, he thought wearily. Some people you can cry with. But he had to try. He knew one thing with certainty; if they hadn’t had sex, she wouldn’t be hesitating over whatever it was that was bugging her now. The kiss at her window seemed centuries away, and continents distant now.
He sat next to her on the couch and grimly wondered what he could get away with. She swallowed hard, and looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Sorry,” she muttered.
She’s talking, he thought. “Suppose there’s better times for the local neighborhood vampire to drop in then during the social worker’s visit.”
“Oh, God, I feel so….” She sagged against the back of the sofa, and appeared not to notice that it was his arm cushioning her neck and not the pillow. “I’m sure she’d take Dawn away, and sound so logical about it when she did it.” With that, he couldn’t stop himself and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. Her face flushed abruptly, and he gingerly pulled away, grateful that vampires couldn’t blush. The fact that his heart didn’t beat certainly didn’t stop it from feeling like it was breaking.
Daylight, Buffy thought. Couch. Willow upstairs. But God, he felt so solid against her, and what she really wanted was to lean into him and let him take some of the stress away. She couldn’t figure out how that had happened. Every other guy she’d known had caused her stress. The stress she seemed to feel around Spike lately came from the effort it took not to kiss him again.
It seemed to get harder to know what to do, when her instincts told her one thing, and her logic told her another. What she wanted to do was lean against him, feel his arms around her, and banish all the worries with the sensation of his skin against hers. Even the sensation of his body against her was absurdly comforting, which it shouldn’t have been, because her pulse was racing and speeding up, and her breath was coming shallow. It would be so nice just to allow him to do what he wanted, to let him take care of her and soothe her. But every instinct she had told her that she couldn’t do that, because Spike loved her and she couldn’t begin to understand what she felt for him. She couldn’t take and not give. It was not fair.
“Buffy? Slayer? What did she say?”
It occurred to Buffy that this was the sort of thing she should be discussing with her father, her friends, or Giles, and the thought undid her. She turned such a look of misery on him that his face twisted, but when he tried to touch her face again, she flinched just enough to avoid his hands, hoping he would understand how reluctant she was to take his comfort and not reciprocate. Of course, guy-like, he didn’t, and she found herself confronted with such a stricken look that she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her right then. They were both frozen for a moment, but she recovered faster, darting forward, against him, kissing him fast and hard. When she opened her eyes, he was staring at her, face washed of expression by surprise. “Wh---?”
Why does he have to do that? She thought. Why does he have to ask me questions I can’t answer? Or syllables? He reached out very slowly with one hand and Buffy’s eyes flew to it as he finally touched her face again, watching as she looked away from him. It felt better than the kiss, his thumb circling on her cheekbone, his eyes making her flinch from meeting that gaze. Much as she inhabited two different worlds, she knew that she and Spike had different worlds, too. There was the world her friends saw and understood, the world where Spike was Spike, and clothed in leather and disdain. The other one was the one to which only she had admittance, and it was world of warm beds and skin and shivering sensation.
They drifted into another kiss that was nothing like the first. Buffy’s hands found his chest, then his shoulders. His tongue was slow and soft against hers, and she melted against him, his hands slowly sliding around her waist.
“Uh..” Willow cleared her throat and Buffy and Spike sprang apart, clutching at opposite ends of the sofa. Willow stared from one to the other, her mouth open. A squeaking noise emerged first, then she shut her mouth, opened it, shut it again, and finally came to a stop. The gears turning in her brain seemed almost audible as she gestured from one to the other. “We…we…have to go. We. Have to go. Now. Uh….have to go? Did I say that already? I have class.” That seemed to strike a chord, and she decided to elaborate on it. “I have class and you have research.” She looked at Spike, who looked like someone had hit him over the head, and at Buffy, who was looking everywhere but either one of them.
“Yeah, research,” Buffy said. “Research is good. Don’t want frost demons in Sunnyda---So, if it’s not a demon, do you think it could be a frost fairy instead?” She looked back and forth, but Spike still looked as if he’d suffered an abrupt head injury, and Willow looked stunned into immobility. At that point, Willow tactfully stepped to the front door.
“I’ll, uh, head out while you, uh, get ready. I’ve got some time before class, if you want to catch up.”
“Uh, yeah..” Buffy said uncertainly. She glanced at Spike, now shaking his head, and stood up as if she was going to do something. The front door clicked shut, and she slumped back to the couch.
“She looked surprised,” Spike said.
“I, uh---we did sort of talk about….you…the other day.”
“You did?” What she hadn’t said finally hit him. “But nothing specific, right?”
“No,” Buffy said quietly. “Nothing specific yet.”
“As soon as I figure it out.”
“Well, let me see if I can help you with that part,” Spike said wearily. “I love you, but you don’t love me.”
“I don’t know what I feel for you,” Buffy whispered. Her voice would break if she tried to raise it, but she had to say at least that, to let him know what she knew about her feelings. But somehow if her voice broke in front of him when he was this…worn out… she thought it would kill her all over again. It would actually be better if he got angry. Angry Spike was a known quantity, and they could fight then at a safe distance from one another. But when he got this disappointed, disgusted tone to his voice it was shattering to her. When did that happen?
“Well, here’s something then,” he said bitterly, standing up, getting irritated. “I know…I know how hard it is for you, I do, pet. But…If you can’t say it, then maybe you shouldn’t be…acting like this. Confuses me,” he muttered, looking down at the ground. “Don’t know what to think any more. So…look….Just pick one or the other, okay? If you can’t tell your best mate about me, then maybe you just shouldn’t be kissing me….” Bugger, he thought. She looked so wretched the rest of his statement evaporated in his head. Sounded very brave, it did, but unfortunately, listening to the way her breath was getting harsh and raw made him want to grab her and say something entirely different, something less brave and more plaintive.
“No, you’re right,” she whispered, looking at the floor. “You’re right.” I really should start making note of uncomfortable silences, she thought. Maybe there’s a record. Maybe I could get a prize. Several centuries seemed to go by while they stood and fidgeted in front of the couch. “Uh..” She cleared her throat. “Are you going to stay here?”
“Daylight,” she shrugged. “You could look for your lighter.”
Although she wasn’t aware of it, she’d given him a gift. She was so casual about him spending the day in her house that it told him some things had changed. Only her friends previously were so uncritically trusted, and now…Now his instincts warned him that her trust had some unexpected dimensions. Friends, not anything more. Be safe, and she trusts you. Be yourself, be a man, and she shoves you away. He shook his head slowly at her. “I should be shoving off after I find it.”
“Oh,” Buffy said uncomfortably. “She’s not going to be too happy that she missed you.”
Was that an invitation? A request for his company? Even an oblique one? “Uh, yeah,” he said, trying not to look too jubilant. “Sure. Be here when Dawn gets home and all.”
“No scary stories.”
“None,” he promised. “Unless she tells them to me. Her friends are bloody little---Okay,” he added quickly. Not a good idea, talking about the Bit’s friends. There was always the possibility it might get back to her, and then she would enforce the Truth-or-Dare rule. Nothing was more ghastly than reliving one’s past geekiness for the gratification of one’s teenaged charge.
She got to the door, and then, Joyce’s manners rearing up once again, stopped and tried to make some polite gesture. She could barely look him in the eye, but she tried. One down, she thought. Willow had already disappeared in the direction of the Magic Box. One to go. She headed off after her.
Continued in Chapter 4