By Annie Sewell-Jennings
Sequel to The Waiting Season
SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S
SPOILERS: Through "Grave"
DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Soundtrack of this chapter? All Grant Lee Buffalo and Grant-Lee Phillips, for it is the music of the gods. So gorgeous.
Thanks again to the kick-ass beta efforts of Devil Piglet and wisteria, who made this story much, much better than it should be. Really. They are the bomb-diggity.
Chapter Eight: Exposures
This one was all things a mansion a fortress
And as we matured it was shade for
The secrets that we passed along
--Grant Lee Buffalo, "Better For Us"
Back in the secret season with Spike, when everything was too sacrilegious and abominable to be revealed to her friends, Buffy often had dreams about being on trial. Intimidating courtroom, crammed full with all of her high school classmates, staring at her in shock, appalled and disgusted. Xander dressed in suit and tie; Willow beside him in a severe black pantsuit, hair jerked away from her scrubbed, plain face. Prosecuting her for decisions that were spawned from their grievous error.
Is this really your life to live, Miss Summers?
Familiar faces, blank and empty, devoid of compassion, filling up the jury box. Riley in camouflage, destroyed and mauled. Parker smirking, triumphant at last. She understood his motivations now. Dawn detached, isolated and imperious. Her beloved Angel, no longer hers to keep. Anya, Oz, Drusilla, Darla, Cordelia, her mother so bereaved and ghostly.
Order! Order in the courtroom! Spike, if you do not exit the premises I will insist on having you gagged!
Fingers wrapped around her legs, grabbing onto her ankles, a dead weight dragging her down as she walked up to the witness box, all eyes on her. Buffy offered up her testimony, pleaded her case, and her black leather ball and chain hissed betrayal at her all the while. Willow pacing, Xander shouting, and the Honorable Rupert Giles banging his gavel while a whispery, ghostly Tara tried her best not to stammer while defending her, sobbing and screaming, but all they gave her was damnation.
We, the jury, find the defendant guilty and sentence her to live.
Now, as soon as Buffy saw them, she knew that they had a verdict.
They were gathered around her dining room table, bearing drawn faces and lukewarm coffee, the essence of sobriety. All eyes crawled across her as she descended the last couple of steps, heart rising in a crescendo of panic, smile frozen on her face. She understood how deer felt when captured in high beams. Swallowing the thick lump of fear in her throat, Buffy flicked a gaze at the front door and momentarily thought of running away.
"Buffy, I think we need to... Talk."
From across the room, Anya's heightened senses could smell the unusual, spicy Spike-scent that had wrapped her up in its potent embrace. All alcoholic and nicotine-saturated, dusty and ashen in all the wrong ways, but no sweet leather-musk, which was disappointing. And yet she could not smell the sex on Buffy, even though her embrace upstairs with Spike had been so intimate, so... Sensual. Not like her fumbling, punch-drunk encounter on the Magic Box table.
They're in love.
"Are we having another apocalypse?" Buffy asked hopefully from the stairs, and nobody replied, everyone averting their eyes except for curious Anya, who stared at her with a wistful smile tugging at her lips. Buffy sagged. "Oh. It's one of those talks."
"I saw you this morning. With him."
Widening her eyes, Buffy stared at Xander, who'd said the words like they killed him. Hollow dark eyes stared back at her, loaded with questions and queries, and his mouth was tight like he did not really want the answers. "Oh," she said quietly, slipping into an empty chair beside Anya. "I see."
Buffy did not want to have this conversation right now. Everything was all confused, messed-up, her former lover sleeping in her bed with his brow all furrowed like a little boy dreaming about bogeymen, muttering nonsense into a pile of pillows. She had been reluctant to leave his side; he'd smelled so good, like wet grass and rainwater.
Head tipped back, he raises his hands a little, almost like accepting baptism, holy rites underneath the likeness of sculpted angels. Water washes over every careful muscle, every artistic sinew...
Xander swallowed hard, choking on the angry accusations he wanted to throw at her. You're sleeping with a monster. You're fucking a dead thing. You're in love with your would-be rapist. That bruise on her thigh, the fingerprints that were smudged into her cheek in dark splotches, the destruction and the skewed robe...
"Giles told us that you're in love with him," Willow said gently, and Buffy whipped her head around to Giles, who was wearily hiding his face in his hands, glasses dangling between his fingers.
"That was private," Buffy hissed, and he sighed, moving his fingers slightly, like the slightest motion would kill him.
"It was the only way I could stop Xander from killing him."
Xander snorted. "Like it wasn't obvious anyway," he muttered. "There was spooning. Spoonage with Spike. One of those images I want removed from my brain one day. Preferably one day soon."
Feign innocence. That was a good tactic; Spike tried it out a lot and it always charmed her. Big, Precious Moments eyes and pouty lip, little-girl voice and shrinking posture. Everything in her Buffy bag-of-tricks. "We weren't spooning," she said mildly. "We were... Um... Fighting. In our sleep. Because--"
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Giles muttered, dropping his glasses onto the table. "Buffy, they know. Don't be coy." He lowered his voice. "We all saw you."
Buffy swallowed a wild, terrified laugh, thinking of the way that she had woken up this morning. Smothered in Spikiness, his cool, dry body wrapped around hers, chin hooked onto his shoulder, their limbs all tangled up in sheets and skin. Morning light kept at bay, dim and shadowed, and how her heart ached at the thought of leaving his side. Just the thought, the fucking thought, and it made her feel all tight and itchy, like her heart was suddenly too big for her body.
"When did he get back?" Anya asked, and Xander threw her a heavy stare, all the weight of his disapproval falling on her once again. Just like old times, when he would correct her for using the wrong word or let her know in no uncertain terms that what she was saying embarrassed him. In the past, she might have rephrased, backpedaled, but now she just fixed an icy glare on him and fingered her amulet until he shrank back.
"I saw him a couple of weeks ago," Buffy admitted.
Xander slammed his fist onto the table with a loud whack! and Buffy winced. "Fucking..." he growled, and then he took a deep breath. He had to calm down. Deal with this rationally. Don't let the temper run away with itself. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"It wasn't any of your business."
Gritted teeth, throbbing head. "Oh, you don't think so?"
"No. It was between him and me."
Xander wanted to punch something, wanted to break off a leg of the chair and run upstairs to show Spike his new pointy toy. "It's not just between you and him, Buff. He's dangerous, and you know that." Please, please tell me you know that. After what he did to you. How he ruined you.
Her voice was sad and wistful, filled with a longing for things to be different. "I know," she said softly, and Giles subtly reached over and put his hand over hers. He remembered her sticky, sweaty face, her clammy skin, the smell of spoiled hopes as she exited the bathroom, and all of those photographs. It had ravaged her to see what her heart loved, to see the things that Spike had done.
Suddenly, Giles turned his face towards Xander and glared at him. "We will not turn this discussion into a trial," he said, and Buffy blinked at him in awe. "This is Buffy's life, Xander. And it's her heart."
"Is it really?" Xander asked with an arched eyebrow, and the vicious look still had not cowered and run away, even under the blazing fire of Giles's gaze. "You don't know the things he's done. You weren't here last year for that."
Guilt cut through him like a scythe, and Buffy tightened her grip on his wrist. "I see," Giles said quietly. "No, I wasn't, Xander, and I deeply regret not being here for all of you. Last year... From what I've heard, it was disastrous."
"No kidding," Xander scoffed, and Anya then cut her eyes at him.
"Don't play the innocent bystander," she advised. "It doesn't suit you. Oh, and by the way, where were you on our wedding day? I remember Buffy being there, and Willow, and Tara, hell, even Spike--"
"Don't say his name," Xander said through his teeth, but she paid him no mind. Anya was on a roll, finally able to stand up in front of him and call him on all of his failures while he tried to point out everyone else's shortcomings and mistakes.
"--But I don't recall seeing you there," she said, eyes black and sparking. Giles watched her with fascination, catching whippets and flurries of red glowing within her amulet. The vengeance demon at work, abandoning wishes in favor of words. "You must have had something more important to do, like, oh, I don't know, wasting your life."
Furiously, Xander stood up, leaning towards her. "I'm wasting my life?" he said incredulously. "You've already thrown yours away to be the big vengeance-dispenser."
"Oh, right, bring it all back to the demon thing, Xander, because--"
As they snipped and yelled, throwing barbs like hand grenades, exploding and leaving emotional shrapnel, they did not even notice when the others withdrew to the kitchen, abandoning the former lovebirds to their wreckage and war.
Buffy sagged against the wall, closing her eyes and trying to filter out the commotion in the dining room. All of the bickering, the biting and scratching. Not literally, but Buffy was not sticking around to see it get physical. "God," she muttered to herself, "how did they not get married and still manage to act like a divorced couple?"
She felt the emptiness crawling at her skin, that hollow, haggard heaven-deprived state of mind that had consumed her in the months following her resurrection. It was her own damned fault though, for being so naïve as to think that all of the pieces were reassembled, that everything was fine again.
Nothing's ever fine.
Velvet, stripped and raw, murmuring over her brain, numbing her senses and crawling into her skin. So rich, so filled with empathy, like it knew just what she--
"They'll be fine."
Startled, Buffy opened her eyes and saw Willow, calm and pale at the stove, pouring herself a cup of tea. Cocking her head to the side, Buffy watched as her friend stirred lemon and honey into the cup, her motions so smooth, fingers nimble and graceful. Composed, calm, almost serene.
"They've got the big issues," Willow said wisely. "But he still loves her, you know. Every night before he goes to bed, he plays this one CD that she bought him a while back, and listens to this one song that they were going to play as their first dance at their wedding. He wears his wedding band on a chain around his neck. It's alternately cute and sad."
"The ring?" Buffy asked dumbly, and Willow chuckled, shaking her head.
"The Xander," she corrected, brushing errant strands of copper hair out of her eyes. Giles leaned against the refrigerator, noticing the awkward way that her hand shook when she passed him by, her tranquility momentarily breached by tension. Sighing, she practically sank into a chair, taking a measured sip of tea before she continued. "The last year's been hard on him. Not to say it hasn't been hard on all of us, because wow. Last year."
Buffy nodded. "It sucked."
There was a silent moment of companionship shared between them, like two war-hardened soldiers taking a breather between battles. Regrets and losses had scarred their young faces, beating fine lines around Buffy's eyes, tightening and pinching Willow's mouth, and Giles took in these changes with guilt. Could he have prevented these pains if he had stayed here this past year? Saved Buffy from her destroyed self, rescued Willow before she descended into the dark?
They were interrupted by the sound of breaking glass, and Buffy winced, wondering what else was broken in her house. "Good Lord," Giles muttered, and she sighed, trudging towards the dining room.
"I'll go deal with it," she said, shaking her head. "And collect payment for whatever they messed up. I swear, whenever those two get together, it's just bad news."
Buffy refused to linger on the irony of her own words.
Alone in the kitchen, they had no one but each other, and there was no one Willow wanted to avoid in the world more than Rupert Giles. Ducking her head, she tried to hide her face underneath her hair, tried to hide the eyes that had stared at him so deadly while draining the energy from him, but she could feel him watching her nonetheless. It made her feel small and vulnerable, made her feel worried and nervous.
Gently, Giles put a hand on her shoulder, warm fingers spreading over her shoulder, and she could almost smell the library in that moment. Cursed books, lingering scent of tea and tweed, knowledge and violence. Freshly cut wood. The memory was so vivid that her fingers curled, trying to grasp something intangible and lost. She remembered the Willow that she used to be, the girl in silly hats and sneakers, who always knew the answers and aced all of the tests, fingers flying in a flurry over the keyboard...
"It's all right, Willow," Giles murmured. "It's all right."
She did not even notice that she was crying.
They'd broken her mother's picture.
Carefully, Buffy picked up shards of glass from the floor, delicately dropping them in the trash bag, while her mother's image stared up at her from a sea of beige carpeting and fractured frame. It was her mother's favorite frame, the one with the silver roses forming a wreath around the photograph. Trash now.
Just another part of the wreckage that was Anya and Xander.
When Buffy had entered the dining room, Xander was hunched over the picture, frantically gathering up the pieces, and his quickened breath and red, sweaty face told her who the culprit behind her broken picture was. She knew enough about the way men could shatter the most ordinary things when they lost their tempers. Anya had just stood there, looking down at him, her face utterly empty, and her words still echoed through Buffy's head. Call me when you've learned how to forgive.
Her house was blissfully quiet now; as soon as the impromptu fireworks session was over, all of the rubberneckers cleared out. Quiet, supportive Giles offering her a hug before driving Anya to work, Xander stumbling out with a wet-cheeked Willow mutely following. Dawn was still upstairs sleeping the sleep of the teenaged zombie (though, thankfully, not literally), while her controversial maybe-paramour hid behind his dreams from the sunlight.
All that Buffy wanted was the darkroom.
"Morning," Dawn grumped, fists grinding sleep out of her eyes as she trudged downstairs. Much to Buffy's surprise, her sister was not in pajamas, but rather fully dressed. Although with Dawn's skimpy summer wardrobe, calling her clothed was sort of stretching the truth.
Frowning, Buffy looked out the window. "Funny," she said, "but I don't see any pigs flying."
"Ha-ha," Dawn said, rolling her eyes as she reached for her purse. "I've got an errand to--" Her hand froze, hovering over the small, shiny silver object resting on the end table.
The summer of empty, the summer of ache. The summer without Buffy.
"You know how long I've had this lighter?" he says, unlit cigarette bobbing between his teeth as he stares at the Zippo cupped in his hand. Dawn shakes her head, enthralled by him as she always is, eager to hear his gory, grisly stories and unusual instances of accidental heroism. "Had it since 1969. Woodstock. Yeah, pet, I was there. Got to see Jimi Hendrix and the introduction of granola, which isn't that bad if you soak it in blood, but that's beside the point. This lighter's stayed with me. It's loyal." Spike's voice breaks for a moment near the end, thinking undoubtedly of Buffy.
Dawn reaches over to him, takes his cool fingers in her small, hot hand, and tells him that she understands.
"I saw Spike," Dawn murmured, and Buffy sighed, exasperated.
"Great," she muttered. "Should I just put a big billboard over our house that says 'Spike is Here'?"
Dawn frowned. "Spike's here?"
Buffy rolled her eyes. "I'm going to end up with rope burns around my neck from all of this hanging myself." She wrapped an arm around her sister and guided her to the sofa, tucking her hair behind her ear. "So, where did you see him? On patrol, right?"
Dawn nodded. "Yeah," she said. "We found this boy... He was all bloodied up. But I killed the vampire, so that's a plus. Xander and Willow took him to the hospital, and I decided to go exploring."
"And exploring ended up at Spike's crypt," Buffy finished, and Dawn nodded again, still fingering the lighter, her warm fingertips passing over the cool, smooth metal and silver.
"Sort of," she admitted, and then she sighed. "I don't know what I was going to say to him, really. 'Hi, nice seeing you again, thanks for almost raping my sister and hightailing it out of town?'" Both sisters winced, and Buffy ran a hand through her hair.
"So what did you end up saying to him?" she asked, and Dawn sighed.
"I wanted to beat the shit out of him," she said, and Buffy snorted. That was her sister, a Summers girl through and through. She had the feeling that their mother would be proud. "But I couldn't. I got there and he was acting all... Weird."
Buffy frowned. "Weird how?" she asked, and Dawn shrugged, squirming a little, uncomfortable as she thought about it. The way that the vampire had sat smoking and sullen on the sarcophagus, ripping apart books and reeking of booze and too many cigarettes... Well, okay, so it wasn't exactly unusual for Spike to be drunk. Hell, he'd spent half of last summer in an alcoholic stupor, but it was the way that he'd acted that made him seem so...
"He broke his TV," Dawn finally said, and Buffy furrowed her brow. "I know, it's just television, but you know. Spike loves television. But he tore the entire crypt apart, and he was tearing pages out of books and quoting Shakespeare."
Gasping, hands outstretched and scrambling as he pushes himself away from her, mouth open in an 'o' of shock, and he's saying the things that victims say. "No, no, stop, I can't..." She does not understand, reaches out for him, but he's muttering about dirtiness and...
"What did he say?" Buffy asked, her voice hoarse and ragged to her own ears.
Dawn shook her head, face clouded with trouble and pinched with hurt. "He said... Stuff about how I shouldn't touch him because he was dirty, which was so true. He smelled like a bar had thrown up on him."
Water sliding down the sharp, angular planes of his face, trickling onto his shoulders, and wild white hair sticking up from his face in gorgeously disheveled damp curls, caught in the crosshairs of her camera.
"And then when I tried to confront him about... You know," Dawn said awkwardly, flashing a gaze at her sister, not wanting to bring up the dreaded word, "he just kind of... Freaked out even more. And he said something about how he'd thought he'd fixed it, how he was sorry for what he did to you, but how he couldn't change and I shouldn't..." Her lower lip quivered, and she turned her face away from Buffy, hiding her wounded eyes underneath a thick curtain of mahogany hair. "He was different."
"Don't say it," he begs, eyes petrified of what he might find in her eyes, in her words, in her proclamations and confessions of love. "Hurts to hear you say it."
Frowning, Dawn tilted her head and looked at her, concern etched in her spaniel's eyes. Puppy dog eyes, Buffy thought dazedly. "Buffy?" she asked. "You okay? You look kind of... Wigged."
Quickly, Buffy flashed a smile, the dazzling "everything is fine" grin, a little dopey and goofy. "I'm all right," she said, averting her eyes and nervously tucking her hair behind her ears as she stood up, walking towards the door. "No big. Just spaced for a minute. Go run your errand, and I'll meet you at the Magic Box around five so that we can go school shopping."
Dawn perked right up at that, arching her eyebrows and grinning happily. "Oo, does this mean that we get to go spend more Watcher cash?" she asked excitedly, and Buffy beamed right back at her.
"Yup," she said. "Time to go blow more stuffy British bucks. I'm thinking that we should go to Beverly Hills for Labor Day weekend and clean out Prada."
Dawn shouldered her purse and slipped a pair of sunglasses on her nose, grinning mischievously at Buffy as she walked out the door. "In the meantime, we can spend it on more obnoxious yard art," she said, and Buffy snickered.
"Wal-Mart, here we come."
Before Dawn skipped out, a thought occurred to Buffy, and she called after her. "Dawnie!" she said, and her sister spun around, arching an eyebrow. "You said that Spike was quoting Shakespeare?"
Taken aback, Dawn stammered for a moment, surprised at the question. "Yeah," she said. "What about it?"
Buffy swallowed. "Which one was he quoting?"
Dawn bit her lip, trying to think back. "I can't remember," she said. "But there was something about a bad winter and he said that he was some Richard guy and I was Ophelia, even though I told him that I was Juliet. And can I go now?"
Buffy smiled, but it was a wavering, uncertain one, troubled and false. "Yeah," she said. "See you."
Though the sun was shining bright in the sky, and the earth was filled with a perfumed haze of summertime languor, there was only one place on earth where Buffy wanted to be at the moment, and that was the darkroom.
Anxiously, she sat on the washing machine and stared at the wet photographs hanging from the clothesline stretched across the rafters of the basement, hugging her knees to her chest, back tensely propped against the wall, waiting for the pictures to develop. The egg timer was ticking like a death march, and her fingernails tapped out the beat on the tin lid of the machine. It was agonizing, this waiting period, and all that she could think of was Spike.
After Dawn is gone, she slips upstairs to the bedroom and holds the camera in her hand, snapping off pictures of him in the dim shadows of her bedroom. Hand slung across pillow, back arching a little, feet twitching in his sleep. But mostly, she wants pictures of his face, wants to capture the expression of barely restrained pain, the tension, and the helpless arch of his scarred eyebrow as he mutters nonsense that her film cannot record.
"No... I can't see... Nothing, all bollixed..."
There were the bare bones of a chronology constructed on the worn canvas of his leather coat, draped out over the dryer, her black and white photographs fanned out before her. Spike at her doorstep, Spike at her feet, Spike's hunched shoulders as he walked away from her. On the signature of a killer, she placed the three shots of him astonished, adoring, and defeated. All of them so open, so honest, so vibrant and intensely, deeply passionate. The things that she only caught and registered in glimpses before he left, and even then they were snippets marked to be shredded and destroyed because she could not handle their meaning.
Buffy wished that she had them all back.
Something... Something had happened to him. Something that made him hiss and recoil at her touch, something that stripped him of his usual sneer and swagger.
She worried that he might be broken.
Sighing, Buffy slumped against the brick wall and ran a hand over her eyes, wincing. Last night, he'd been so fragile, so unlike him, like all of his defenses were smashed to smithereens and he was left raw and bleeding. She had never seen him cry before, and it was an awful and terrible thing, like watching a building crumble to dust. Spike wept in the same manner with which he lived his unnatural life -- to the fullest. No holds barred.
What did he do in Africa?
"Good morning, pet."
To give her credit, she did not spin around in shocked surprise at his entrance, and Spike wasn't sure if he was grateful or disappointed that she did not pick up a stake and throw it at him out of sheer habit. Instead, Buffy just tossed a weak smile over her shoulder at him, almost fond and endearing, a sad reminder of the travesty he'd pushed her into.
Funny, how he could want this and nothing else for the last two years, and when he finally had her heart, he wanted to throw it back.
Ain't love grand, cherie?
Groaning, Spike stretched his lithe body underneath the dim weight of the basement lighting, looking sculpted out of fire beneath her red development lights. He looked remarkably good, delectably underdressed in nothing but the pair of black jeans she'd grabbed for him last night from the cemetery, his black tee shirt balled up in his fist. "Did you sleep well?" she asked softly, thinking of the way that his face had contorted and tensed while he dreamed.
A shrug, careless and effortless. "Well enough," he said. "Had some weird dreams. You and me, in France, 'cept that you weren't you and I wasn't me."
The corner of her mouth twitched into a teasing smile. "Was the sex good?" Buffy asked, and Spike gave her a leer that almost revived the old days of too much teasing and not enough of everything else.
"Can't remember," he said honestly, and she gave him a flirtatious smile that he once would have killed to see. Teasing green eyes, flashing hint at dimples, girlish coloring. The look of a girl who wasn't wearing any underwear and wanted him to come see for himself. Tempting thought, that, just walking over there to the dryer and slipping his hand down her loose white blouse, copping a good feel of her sweet-smelling, soapy-fresh skin, sliding her little cut-off shorts down her skinny thighs...
Ripping at the robe, clawing at the cloth...
"You seen my boots?" Spike said flatly, refusing to look at her, wary of the temptation that her body on a vibrating appliance provided. Fantasies of laying her down, of her giggling and laughing while he cranked up the dryer, squealing delightedly as he climbed atop her... Bad thoughts. Shouldn't go there, mate. Not anymore. "Need to get going before it gets too bright."
Buffy frowned at him, glancing up at the faint slits of light appearing through the tiny rectangular block windows of the basement. "It's already too bright," she said. "What’s the hurry, Spike? You know that you can stay here until it gets dark."
But he was already pulling on his shirt, shaking his head. "I'll make a run for it," he said. "Gotten rather good at that, if you can spare me a blanket to keep the sun out." Or don't. Doesn't really matter. Could make a dash across the street and burn up in a fiery blaze. Pull a Richard Pryor on Revello Drive, give the neighbors a good show of it.
It hurt, seeing how anxious he was to get away from her, like she was Typhoid Mary with a contagious heart. Bowing her head, Buffy fidgeted with the fraying hem of her shorts. "I see," she muttered, and Spike sighed.
"Look, it's nothing personal," he said. "Just... Things would probably be better if I wasn't here, you know? Before everyone gets a gawk at--"
"Too late," Buffy said, a wry smile turning up one side of her mouth. "It seems that everyone got tuned into the Buffy and Spike show this morning, leading to my extremely uncomfortable talk about the good and the bad of sleeping with vampires." She frowned. "Well, come to think of it, there wasn't much of the good discussed, which is a shame, because they really missed out on a lot of interesting facts to know and use." She tried to give him a grin, tried to light him up again, but he only winced.
"Bet they weren't too thrilled," he muttered, and Buffy gave him a dry smile that pretty much said it all. Spike would have paid a pretty penny to have been there for that conversation, the whole Scooby gang assembled to suss out the wicked-bad of their coupling, Harris sitting there flapping his gob like a pissed-off flounder while Giles cleaned his glasses like an obsessive-compulsive, all restrained and grossed-out.
"You'll have to get over it someday, you know."
Her voice was soft and flimsy, like origami. When he looked at her, her eyes were plain and meaningful, gentle mouth holding a sad smile, and her hair a cascade of gold. "It's over," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "I'm over it. You can't dwell on what happened between us for the rest of your life."
A short, sour laugh, and he turned his face away, fading into the shadows of her darkroom. "Sure you're over it," he muttered. "Can't even say what it was, can't even acknowledge it, but you've got your closure. Right."
She took a moment, gathered her strength, and then hopped down from the dryer, striding purposefully across the basement towards him. Firmly, she crossed her arms over chest and stared defiantly at him. "I am over it," she said. "Over. Done. Finished. I'm over it, and I forgive you for it because I--"
Spike shook his head, turning away from her, shutting her out. "Don't say it," he muttered gruffly. "Told you not to. You don't really..."
His voice trailed off, pained and stifled, and Buffy tilted her head to the side before placing her palm on his cheek. "What?" she asked softly. "I don't really love you? I do. It's real, Spike, and it's realer than anything I've ever felt before. It's incredible."
"It's a lie," he hissed. "Said it before yourself, Summers. You could never trust me enough to love me. Best stick with your instincts on that one, pet."
God, he was infuriating. Absolutely irritating and aggravating, all of this self-incrimination and shadow skulking. He made her fists curl up from frustration, her blood pumping hard and hot inside of her veins, temper rearing its vicious head. "God, what is up with you?" Buffy finally said, throwing up her hands in defeat. "Ever since you came back from Africa, you've been all different and weird and freaky."
"Have not," Spike said feebly, averting his eyes. He could not tell her about the soul, could not let her know, not yet. Not when she was still subscribing to this stupid idea of loving him, the thing that could get her killed faster than a thousand bloody apocalypses. Commitment to Spike never ended well, and she was a fool for not having known this the instant he shoved her against the bathtub and tried to take what was not his. "Just... Considered things, is all. You were right. I'm a monster." His voice almost broke. "A thing."
Wounded, Buffy turned her face away from him. "I did this to you, didn't I," she murmured, crossing her arms over her chest, suddenly chilled by the thought. "I made you think these... Awful things about yourself, all because I couldn't tell you..."
Suddenly, Buffy walked towards the dryer, and for the first time, Spike noticed something other than her. His leather duster, the one that was stripped from the body of a warrior, was draped across her dryer, serving as a makeshift malleable canvas for her photography. In a swift motion, Buffy picked up the pictures and walked back over to them, slamming evidence in his face once again.
A picture of himself, standing on her sidewalk with his mouth all gaping like the git that he was, eyes wide and stupidly open, showing all of his raw, unveiled love for her. For a moment, Spike was captivated by the celluloid reflection; he had not seen himself in ages. The last time he'd seen what he looked like was through the stolen lens of someone's camera in Brazil, when he went skinny-dipping with Dru in the warm, clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, back when his dark bride still loved him enough to ignore the fact that his heart belonged to the woman who was born to hunt him down.
"Christ," Spike muttered, looking at the lovelorn shot of himself, "I really do look pathetic, don't I?"
Gently, Buffy touched his face, sliding a finger down his nose, shaking her head. "No," she said. "You look amazing. Do you see, Spike? Why I love you? It's right here in this picture."
Spike closed his eyes, and she leaned forward, laying a kiss on each slash of black lashes, threading her fingers through the springy, untamed curls. She felt him weakening, all of his defenses and nasty retorts melting to the floor, and she took advantage like he used to, trying to bring him out of himself and into her.
Threading her hands around the back of his neck, Buffy guided him towards the washing machine, surrounded by her slowly focusing photography, underneath the hot fiery lamps and into the shadows. "Do you remember?" she murmured into his neck, kissing the still pulse point by his jaw, making him shudder and sigh. "Remember when I came back from the dead? And you told me..." Another kiss, nipping at his earlobe, tugging with her teeth in a way that made his entire body stiffen and his non-breath all ragged. "...That you saved me. Every night, you saved me."
"Failed," Spike murmured, his head bowed and body slumped over her, succumbed to the touch of her hands and the weakness of his heart. Never had resolve when it came to her. Never, and that would be the death of Buffy Summers one day. Couldn't control himself. Couldn't keep his hands away from her, not when her hot, dry mouth was pressing little airy kisses along cheek, moving slowly for his mouth.
"You didn't fail," Buffy whispered. "I wouldn't let you save me until it was too late. But you did, you know. Eventually. I fall in love with you a dozen times a day, Spike, and it's for a thousand different reasons. The way you look at me. The stupid little nicknames you always make up for me. Your eyes, your voice, your hands..." She hissed in a breath then, heat and hunger colliding inside her belly. "God, your hands are so fucking beautiful."
Tentatively, Spike lifted one of them and wrapped it around her waist, aching at the feel of her feverish curves beneath his fingers, and the way that she moaned and arched, sucking in a breath. "Yes," she whispered. "Touch me. I want you, I need you, I love--"
Before Buffy even knew what happened, she found herself against the wall while Spike tore through the room like a hurricane, flimsy photographs shaking and trembling in his wake. "No," he said, flexing his fingers, gripping his head with his hands. Madly, he laughed and then whirled around, pointing an accusing finger at her. "You're crazy, Slayer, you know that? Finally gone right around the bend, and you want to take me with you. Too bad I beat you to it."
They had to stop doing this, starting something so hot and scorching and then throwing it onto ice. It was killing Buffy, her body tingling and skin screaming for his fingers, his mouth, his words and his cock. She wanted him so badly that it hurt without his touch. "Spike..."
Spike whipped around, staring at her with desperation on his face. "So I told you once that I'd save you," he said. "Doesn't matter now. Every night, pet, I dream about you. About killing you. All sorts of different ways, all sorts of different weapons, but the same result every time. You, deader than disco. And no one to blame but me."
Screaming, crying, sniffling in his arms as he grabs her by her too-perfect hair and brings her head back, exposing the graceful curve of her neck. "Tell Dawnie I love her," she begs, and he laughs because the little cupcake is dead already, doesn't she know, all of her lanky limbs broken and her spine all snapped to pieces. "Spike..."
"Stop saying that!" he bellowed, his voice reverberating and bouncing off of the cement walls, desperate and angry. "Don't you get it? Every night, I kill you, and I wake up harder than algebra and begging for more."
Clenching his jaw, Spike suddenly stormed across the floor and grabbed her roughly by her shoulders, hoping to elicit a gasp, wanting to make her afraid of him, because at least fear was something that could keep her safe. If she hated him, if she was scared of him, then she might survive him after all.
"I'm a monster," he hissed in her ear. "You hear me? Evil, through and through. Everything you've ever said to me, well, I've proven you right. That act... Speaks for itself, pet. Says everything about what kind of a bastard I am. Is that what you love so bad, Slayer? That what you want?"
Hard, bony hands pushed against his chest, throwing him off of her, and Spike sneered at her, looking at the barely contained rage on her face, at the fury and thunder of Buffy Summers, unhinged. "Yes," she hissed. "I'm in love with you, after everything. Because of everything. I love your passion, and your fire, and your pigheaded badness, and the way that you're more alive than any man I've ever seen."
"Not alive," Spike muttered, turning his face away from her. "Not a man, remember?"
Buffy slapped him, hard across his face, enough to leave a handprint that could blossom into a bruise. "No," she said firmly. "I was wrong that night, Spike. I was wrong all along. You're more of a man than half of the men in this world. The way that you live, everything full-tilt and pedal to the metal... God, that's what I love about you. You're invigorating, and infuriating, and you make me feel alive!"
There it was, laid out as bare as her spare photography in the middle of the darkroom, and Buffy had her reason. It was not the death, not the destruction, but the way that Spike could throw himself into every action, every motion, and the way that he loved the world that he was created to destroy. He was fire and brimstone, hell decked out in leather and smoke, grinning like a wolf as he flung himself into the fray of living and being.
But this man was not the same. He was a wounded and wrecked version of that fitful, furious Spike who'd somehow fought his way into her heart. There was something tragic about him now, like a ferocious tiger who'd been kept too long in captivity and was dwindling away into listless death. Not domesticated, not tamed, just... Ruined.
"What happened to you?" Buffy asked softly, reaching out to touch his hair, all of those springy little coils of silver-gold. He jerked away, body tense and filled with bottled lightning, and she shook her head, sadly. "Talk to me. Tell me where you were in Africa. Tell me what you did."
Getting the crap beat out of me by countless beasties. Hating you for making me do this to myself. Loving you because I fucked you up so bad. Trying to find something to make this all right, only to find out that I was cheated by fate yet again.
Couldn't tell her. If she knew... If she knew, then it would never be over. She would just keep coming back, all loving and sweet like she was now, touching his hair and trying to wrap her arms around him, and he'd break her like glass before she ever knew what hit her. Buffy had wanted him to give her a reason to love him, to give her a reason for this ill-fated romance that she wanted so badly to spin, and all that Spike could hand her were reasons why she should kill him now and be done with it all.
"Went there for something I lost," Spike finally said through gritted teeth. "Thought it might make things better, fix what I fucked up. But it didn't. Nothing ever will."
Her fingers were the barest whisper of skin against his lips, and Buffy gently turned his head, forcing him to look into her eyes. They were all molten jade, soft and wet, like she could cry for him if he would just let her. "It'll be all right," she said, and she kissed him slow and crushing like snow, and he felt it deep inside of his gut, this love that she'd somehow managed to feel for him. All he'd ever wanted. Just to feel that, and Spike kissed her back, hand hovering helplessly over her hair.
In the end, I'll kill her.
Sighing, Buffy kissed his forehead once more before she moved away from him, twining her fingers briefly through his hand and then letting him slip away. "You should take your coat back," she murmured, fingering the worn, beaten leather cuff briefly. "I've been holding onto it for you for a while, you know. Kind of surprised you haven't come by and picked it up yet."
That's because I can't stand the smell of it, the feel of it, the memory of where it came from. Every time I think about that stupid bloody duster, all I can see is the girl who could have been you. The girl that I killed.
But if he didn't take it, then she would know that something was up, and he had to put on the act. Be old Spike, the one who wouldn't give a shit if the gorgeous leather came from a slaughtered Slayer. That vampire was proud of it, flaunting his trophies, flashing the scar in his eyebrow and the battered duster. "Yeah," he said, reaching over and picking up his coat. "Missed this baby, I did."
Spike slipped into the leather coat, feeling its heavy, birdlike wings settling like guilt on his shoulders, smelling that never-faded scent of power and murder that always clung to the duster's lapels and flaps. Felt like home, felt like him again. Out of familiarity, Spike plunged his hands into the pockets and expected to withdraw a stale pack of cigarettes, but instead found nothing. He frowned. "What'd you do with my fags?" he asked, and she frowned in disapproving confusion.
"Your gay friends?" she asked. "And so not-PC, Spike."
Spike rolled his eyes at her, a memorable gesture that made her think of beating the snot out of him. Ah, yes, those were the good old days. "No," he said, "my cigarettes."
Relieved, Buffy sighed. "Oh, those," she said, and then she ducked her head, quirking a smile at him as she started to take down her photographs. Spike portrayed in muted gray and charcoal, covered in a fine, clear sheen of water. "I kind of smoked them all. My bad."
Spike arched his eyebrows. She'd said as much the other night, but he hadn't really believed her, thinking that she was just being exceptionally melodramatic and overly romantic when claiming that she'd tasted his cigarettes to recapture the flavor of his mouth. Nice sentiment, he'd thought, but Christ, she'd really done it. For the first time since she'd said it, since she'd kissed him like an animal and tried to fuck him in the cemetery, he really believed it.
God, she really does love me.
Dazedly, Spike walked behind her, looking at the woman he'd idolized and worshipped for the past two years, possibly longer, maybe the entirety of his existence. Little blonde snippet of a thing, scandalously small shorts, long legs, wild gold curls. Tidy hands taking down photographs she'd taken of him in the nude, and Spike snickered at that. Made a lovely subject, he did.
The sleeping ones he had more of a trouble with, because of the odd shots she'd taken, the strange poses and expressions fluttering over his face while he'd dreamed about Parisian lovemaking and blood-flavored champagne. All of these photographs, carefully documenting his nightmares. Narrowing his eyes, Spike carefully inspected the several close-ups of his face, and saw with a sinking heart that she would see through his lies.
Suddenly, Buffy paused in front of the last photograph, and she snatched it off of the wire, all of the color draining from her face as she looked at it. Her wrist started to twitch and shake, and she slowly turned around to face him. "I... I didn't take this."
Dread coiled in the pit of his stomach as he looked at the photograph. Buffy and Spike, tangled and intertwined in bed, all covered up in sheets and thin skins. Neither one of them could have taken the picture, it was out of chronological order, and there was this funny shape over by the wardrobe, all secluded and foggy. Squinting, Spike tilted the photograph at another angle. Are those hands? Feet?
"Spike. There's a stranger by my closet."
(end chapter eight)
Continued in Chapter Nine: Charcoal, Smudged