He wondered, in a vague, dizzy kind of way, if he could grind his teeth to powder by squeezing down hard enough and long enough. Tracing the shadows gauzy curtains left on the wall, he didn’t even have to inhale deeply to know who was there. Lilac. A hint of the jasmine her lover had preferred. Nervousness and determination. . . but brittle. Shallow. Not that this one was lacking for strength, not a bitty bit of it according to the stories he’d heard. But a different kind of strength. One undermined and hollowed and now tottered feebly in search of something to bolster it—
—or shatter it.
A twisted smile flickered over his face before he could stop it. Four years ago, he would have loved to meet this Willow in some dark alley. A beautiful child, caught between the sweet innocence of youth and the seductive draw of power. Just a little bit of pressure and Dru would have finally had the little sister she always craved, a pet as crazy as she was. Then add in all that dark magic and oh, the pain they could have made. . .
Then again, it was probably a good thing it hadn’t worked out like that. He hardly needed any more competition for Drusilla’s favor. Not that he had anything left to compete with anyway. Or for.
“Slayer need to take care of that messy mortal business, then?”
“Oh, good. You haven’t lost any of your witty conversation abilities.” Soft sounds of a body sitting on the bed beside him, the worn mattress creaking under even her slight weight. “And yes, she needed a break. She’s been here for four hours.”
Had it been that long? Time was meaningless, had been for. . . well, he didn’t know how long, did he? A laugh, or maybe a sob, bubbled in his throat and he didn’t think he swallowed all of it. “Good for her,” he rasped, still trying to keep the high, clawing sounds from escaping. “Four hours with me and she didn’t flinch once. Then again, I’m a bit tied up at the moment.”
“We don’t mean to—”
“Ask me your questions or go find a book to read. Slayer’ll be back soon enough.”
“You used to call her Buffy.”
Her voice used to be innocent; full of questions and wonder. Now it was older. Harder. Crueller. He wondered if anyone else heard it, or if they were blinded by the Willow they remembered. Stupid of them, if they were. She hadn’t been that girl for a long, long time.
That girl never would have torn her best friend out of death.
“Yeah, well, I used to sl—” The insult died on his tongue, not needing her outraged expression to tell him it was over the line. Shaking his head and exhaling a breath he didn’t need, he muttered, “Slayer, Buffy. Same thing.”
“It’s not the same thing. She isn’t just ‘The Slayer’,” air quotes joined an indignant expression, “she’s Buffy. Her job is the—”
“Oh, give up.” He wished he could rub his eyes; they ached from use a hundred years too long. “Slayer, Buffy, they’re the same bloody thing. You can’t separate them, no matter how much she might want it. You think there’s any other reason she came to me? She needed pain.” Yeah, she needed it. From him, who loved her. “An’ I gave it to her.”
“You didn’t want to.” It wasn’t a question so he didn’t bother looking back towards her. Shadows were much safer so he traced them and traced them until the muscles behind his eyes ached. “She’s changed so much. . .”
“Says the murderess,” he shot back, nettled by the sadness and vague disappointment in her voice.
“Shut up.” There it was: the darkness that would have made Drusilla dance in rapture, the out-of-control anger that fueled Willow’s magics. He wondered, as he glanced over, if she even realized her eyes were shading towards black, hands twitching like she was ready to throw a spell at him.
“You keep doin’ that,” he said quietly, “and your face will freeze that way.”
That surprised her, sternly dark expression fading into shock and curiosity. “Do what? I wasn’t doing anything!”
“Yeah. Just not near me, hey? Had enough mojo thrown my way.”
“That wasn’t my fault!” The defensiveness was still instinctive, despite the effort she was exerting to keep control of herself. Sometimes a woman, but still mostly a child. . . “I mean, okay, it was but I’m better now. I’m trying now. And anyway, I’m just as much the victim here. I got my own supernatural surprise.”
Spike snorted lightly, shaking his head at the folly before him. All of them were such a fucking mess.
“You know, I talked Dawnie into staying downstairs,” Willow declaimed proudly, like she’d done a good thing. A good thing. When Spike would give anything to be in her presence again, even if it meant more hatred and threats? At least then he might have a chance—for what, he wasn’t sure, but he wanted it nonetheless. “She said that she had more things to talk to you about.”
“Don’t do coy, Red. You don’t do it well.”
“She wanted to come threaten me some more. Make herself feel all big and proud, beating on a creature that’s already broken. You wouldn’t let her. Yay for you.” Lifting his head he glared at her. “Might mean more if you didn’t have your own agenda.”
Willow raised an eyebrow. “Maybe you aren’t as clever as you think you are.”
“Maybe I’m not clever at all,” he countered, “but you sure think you are.”
“Look. I didn’t come up here to argue with you.”
“Leave, then. Send in Harris to make sure I’m dotting and crossing where I’m s’posed to. Or send in Dawn, makes no difference to me.”
“Enough!” Huffing slightly, she repositioned herself on the bed. “I just meant. . . what happened. All of it. Listening to Xander talk. . . he doesn’t get it.”
“Enlighten me, then.”
“You didn’t want to hurt her. Ever.”
The laughter was back, crowding his throat and traveling up to burn his eyes when he refused to open his mouth. For every bit of darkness in her, there was still the light. The patient understanding that had made her the best friend of a woman who needed unlimiting supplies of both.
He couldn’t accept that from her.
Desperate to think about anything else, he didn’t pay much attention to what the new topic was. “How’s Dawn?”
Willow looked confused, but not, he was sure, from the abrupt change. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve been in this house for hours, now, and you lot don’t keep you voices down. I know she got a visit from—from her mum?” He hoped it wasn’t. Hoped it was something she’d just forget and move on from, because visions never brought any bit of good with them. They’d gotten Dru killed and him. . . They’d turned him back into a killer.
Born to slash and bash. . .
“It wasn’t her.” The positive surety in a voice gone warm again made him almost smile.
“Hope not. Heard it was tellin’ pretty lies.”
“We think so, yeah. We think it’s the same thing that’s been after you. She’s still shaken, though. I think—I think she wants it to be her mom. And I think it told her something, too. Something she wants to trust but is afraid and. . .”
Because this was so much less painful than the other. Fine. Time to bring this to a head. “Why’re you here, Red? Slayer didn’t send you.”
“I volunteered. I wanted to see you.”
A dull ache told him he was grinding his teeth again but he didn’t try to stop. The pain kept him grounded.
“I want to—I mean, you—You got your soul. For penance. For what you did. That’s. . . ”
Is that what they all thought? “No. Not for penance. Can’t—can’t ever forgive what I did. What I’ve done. But I thought the soul might make it better. For her. Thought she might. . .”
“She used me.” He missed the harsh bravado he’d relied on for decades; this soft-spoken, hesitant voice wasn’t his. It couldn’t be. “She told me, but I never really understood what she meant. I thought I was helpin’ her. Thought it was the right thing, even though. . . it wasn’t what I wanted. Took it, of course—not fool enough to pass up what she was offering, but. . .” He snorted, the same laugh-sob still a lump in his throat. “I didn’t get how much it hurt her to be with me. How much she. . . hated herself. I get that, now. God, do I get it.”
“But the soul?”
“She knew Angel and Angelus were two different people. Separated them completely. I thought, maybe she’d do the same for me. Not to let me back in,” he added at Willow’s doubtful expression. “Not that. But she needed to know that—it was over. Never happening again. That she was safe.”
There was more, so much more, crowding underneath the lump that felt like knives inside him, but he wouldn’t say them. Not to the witch and certainly never to the Slayer. This was Buffy’s road to walk and she’d either understand or she wouldn’t. He was so bloody tired of trying to explain himself.
“You don’t ever expect her to forgive you, do you?”
Oh, the pain in that question. Fear that, like him, she would never be forgiven for the crimes she’d committed. The ones she acknowledged, anyway.
Spike leaned back slightly, studying the broken look in pretty green eyes. It was a measure of her innocence that she didn’t realize how much power she’d just handed him—power over her. He could crush her, now, because she wasn’t the same as him—she was worse. The things she’d done, the manipulation, the power-plays, the intractable belief in her own righteousness—all done with competent mind and fully-functioning soul. It wasn’t even the death of Warren that was the kicker, either. Not even the things she said to Buffy, the fight he’d dearly loved to have seen. No, all of that was bad, but grief can excuse a lot.
“Shouldn’t you be more worried ’bout you, then?” The silk seduction in his voice made his insides shake but he couldn’t stop the words, the smirk that pulled his lips. “She’ll stake me, soon or later. She’ll grab that pretty little gender symbol she keeps under her pillow and put me out of my misery. And it’ll be ended. She’ll get over what I’ve done, she’s too strong not to. Dawn’ll continue to hate me and that’s okay too. Make her stronger, it will. Less likely to trust them that have a bit of kindness and a pretty face till she’s certain. But you? Oh, no. You don’t get off that easy.”
The bite of ropes into his skin only fueled the black rage that had appeared so suddenly within him, watching the last bit of innocence in her face die a painful death. “You don’t even realize what you’ve done, do you? Can’t even comprehend the things you broke.”
“I didn’t—I didn’t break anything. I messed up, I know that. And I’m trying, I’m really trying to fix it. But Tara was murdered and I—”
Spike threw his head back and laughed. It was as horrible as he feared, crackling and choking and frightening, chilling the room with manic disregard. “You think this is about that?” he spat out, sick of this whole sodding conversation. “How truly naive.”
Thin lips firmed into a solid line of pain and the innate superior attitude that had gotten her into this mess to begin with. She was using her anger as a shield, just like her best friend and her best friend’s sister did, but on her it was a sad thing. Too much had been thrown into the magic; without it, she was just a shell.
“Enlighten me,” she demanded. “Tell me why I’m so naive. Because I’m not, you know. Not anymore, now that I’ve—”
“You’ve killed? Think that suddenly gives you insight into me, hm? You’re my equal are you? Rot.” He leaned forward as far as the ropes would allow, forcing her to meet his eyes. “You are nothing like me. The one—the one time I did something truly evil, I knew it. I can blame a million and one things, but I don’t. I never will. I did that and I’m the one who’ll pay for it. And I do. Every day, I pay for it and because of it, I’ll never have what I could’ve. What I wanted. I know that. But you? You don’t have a one clue why they’re so cold to you. You never did, so you went through excuse after sodding excuse—”
“That’s not true!” Her voice had gone shrill, eyes wide as she tried to deny the things she knew weren’t lies. “I’m not—I’m not like that!”
“Oh yeah? Listen well, little girl. I am vampire. I am violence and the Slayer always knew it was a risk with me. Always. But as bas as I was, I didn’t try to murder the blokes trying to help me. I didn’t try to end the bloody world, just because I was hurting. But most of all? I never threatened Dawn. Never.”
A single tear traveled down cheeks gone pallid. “They hate me.”
The manic energy departed with a sucking sound and he slumped down in his bonds. Wasn’t he the talented one, then? Knock out the last bit of hope she clung to—and then give her some more. The soul wasn’t supposed to make him so bloody pathetic. . . was it? “They don’t hate you. You came back, at least. Took a bit, but you stopped what you were doing—and not ’cause they tied you up or locked you away—and yeah, you are trying. That counts. Most times.”
Sniffling, she sunk lower onto the bed, staring down dejectedly. “Okay. But they won’t forgive me.”
Still missing it. “No. Forgiveness isn’t the issue, don’t you see? You can be forgiven—probably will be, too. But it’s not gonna fix what’s bothering you. You broke their trust, Red. Forgiveness is important, but without trust it’s meaningless.”
More tears joined the first but she appeared to actually hear what he’d been telling her. Raising her head, she gave him a watery smile. “That’s why you got your soul,” she said quietly. Leaning forward, she laid a gentle kiss on his cheek.
He was too shocked to even notice the hot, fresh blood inches from his face.
“Willow? Willow are you—there you are.” Buffy poked her head through the door, studying both of them intently. “Can you go sit with Dawn? Xander and Anya are going to interrogate our new friend.”
“Sure.” She waited until Buffy nodded and headed back down before giving him a long look. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “And for what it’s worth, I forgive you.”
Something hot burst inside him—but it didn’t burn. “Yeah. But you don’t trust me, do you?”
“Yeah. I think I do.”
The door clicked quietly as it closed.