All About Spike

Healing
By Kimi

Rating: PG 13
Spoilers: For "Showtime" and "Potential" (but not really much of anything you didn't expect). Post-"Bring on the Night"
Summary: Even vampires need a little TLC.
Feedback: You beta, you beta, you bet!
Disclaimers: All Joss, all ME, all the time...
Author's Notes: This started knocking on my head last Friday. By Saturday, it was started. Thanks to Chris for in-home beta. Now that's service! And to Kelly and Chen, who put up with the drafts all weekend long and into the almost-New Year.

Colleen, it's not that spoilery. Really!



As her mom used to say, she was brooding like a mother hen. Broody, Buffy knew well. She'd been all intimate with the broody.

Wincing, Buffy raised her hand to the half-healed cut above her eye. But the wince was for the use of 'intimate' and 'broody' in the same sentence. Small Angel moment. Nothing to stress over.

As for the mother hen thing? Well, the chicks were all around her, sleeping on sofas, sharing beds - Slayers in Training, Andrew, Giles, Xander, Anya, Willow, Dawnie...

And in the basement, Spike.

She got up and moved heavily toward the cellar stairs. She'd been worried about the shelf-life of the pig's blood in the fridge, but it ended up not mattering anyway. Spike had been pretty much unconscious since she'd gotten him back.

Quietly, she slipped down to check on him. A tiny frown ate away at the skin between her brows. He was so... battered. And it wasn't just his face. He hadn't been wearing a shirt when she found him, and the purplish bruises made broken ribs self-evident. And he had been limping when she'd brought him out, grimacing in pain everywhere she touched him to try and hold him up.

Buffy shook her head. She'd left him alone to heal after Glory had tortured him. Xander and Giles had dumped him in his crypt, and there he'd stayed until she needed him again. And she'd stayed away after she herself had beaten him so badly in the alley near the police station. But now...

She'd been down the steps six times in half as many hours to check on him. Just to reassure herself that he was there. That he wasn't dust. That he was safe.

Well, she reminded herself grimly, as safe as any of them were.

She shook her head again, this time to clear it, and focused. His face seemed to be healing. She pulled at the sheet to look at a particularly nasty spot she'd noticed on his chest. Absently, a grin twisted the side of her mouth. Despite all the damage...

The line between her brow dug in deeper. It was save the world time and she was noticing...

Except hey, she thought all her friends were beautiful. Certainly Willow and Anya were. And Xander, too, in a guy sort of way. And as Anya had said when she was under Willow's forgetfulness spell, Giles was ruggedly handsome. So why couldn't she think Spike was beautiful? Because...

Because he was her friend, too.

She pulled the stool toward the bed, as she'd done every time she'd come down, and perched. Her shoulders relaxed. How long had she felt like he was her friend? Certainly, since she'd been raised from the dead for the... what? Second time? Was that all? Seemed like more.

Since they'd gone to take Dawn from Glory?

Longer? And she just hadn't recognized it? Hadn't wanted to?

She shook her head again. She didn't know. And she ought to be thinking about the First, instead of other 'bad old days.' Sure, she'd taken out the uber bad vamp, but Buffy wasn't stupid enough to think it was over. Not by a long shot.

Instead of thinking of a plan, her mind wandered as her eyes idly moved over his face. If she sat long enough, could she watch him heal? Watch the cuts close and the bruises fade?

As if in answer, he moved slightly in his sleep and whimpered. Without thinking, she put out a steadying hand and touched his hair.

"Shhh," she breathed softly.

He stilled, but his eyes struggled to open. Even the one that had been swollen shut when she'd found him. It didn't quite make it, but the single blue eye that fixed on her was enough. He was still with them.

"Buffy...?"

"Shhh," she repeated in a whisper. "And yes, it's me. The really, really me."

He nodded, seemingly satisfied that it was.

"You're pretty bunged up," she told him honestly. His face was expressionless. She allowed a little humor to creep into her voice. "I was just sitting here wondering if I could sit here and 'watch' you get better. Heal, I mean."

"Lack of entertainment?" he asked rhetorically, with only the faintest shadow of sarcasm. She doubted he had the strength for more.

"Everyone else is asleep," she confessed. "And I need you to be okay." She looked at him searchingly. "So be okay, all right?"

"Workin' on it..." he said with the barest hint of a smile as his eyes closed and he relaxed back into unconsciousness.

Squaring her shoulders, she stood and headed back upstairs to continue standing watch. Paused at the head of the steps.

"Need you to be okay," she said quietly.

She left the door open.

+

"Do you think you can eat now?"

Spike was in pain and out of sorts. "Think I've eaten enough, don't you?" he snapped.

Obviously, he was better if he was able to return to self-pity mode. Sitting down on the stool, mug full of pig's blood in hand, she sighed exaggeratedly. "This could get real old, real fast. C'mon. Try sitting up."

As he struggled to do as he was asked, she reached out to give him a hand. After several grimaces and a scathingly quiet 'bloody hell,' he was braced upright against the wall that ran behind the cot.

Buffy extended the mug and watched him reach out with a hand that was shaking all the way to his shoulder. His eyes fixed on the betraying hand with disgust.

"Let me."

He started to protest.

"What? It's not like I haven't done it before," she said brusquely. Putting the straw to his lips, she smiled a little to take the sting out of his infirmity. He finished the mug off quickly, as if there was no pleasure in eating. Like he was taking medicine, instead of food.

Setting the empty mug on the floor, she took her time sitting back up, and tried to gather her thoughts. It was time to talk.

He beat her to it, cutting through to the meat of it, as always.

"How bad is it?"

He'd never been the type to skate around it when sailing straight in would serve. It used to irritate her. Now it was a relief.

"Pretty bad," she admitted, looking him in the eye. "Although I did manage to lop the head off that cute little vampire you made."

"Thank God for that," Spike said with a small smile. "Nasty bugger. Helluva kick," he said, gingerly touching his ribs.

Buffy grinned back. "I noticed. Not once, but several times."

"Same here." Squinting, Spike leaned forward a little, to examine the slayer's face. "Ouch. Got you, too?"

She nodded as she touched her eyebrow. "Still sore. This one could leave a scar."

"Nah. Be fine in a few. Slayer healing. Better than vamps. You'll see," Spike assured her. He settled back uncomfortably, and gathered himself. "Now. How can I help?"

Relief washed over her face. She smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. "Help me stop this thing. Help me protect everyone. Just... be here. I've got an army upstairs that needs training. Well, maybe not an army. More like a pajama party really. Giles brought all of these slayers in training. Their watchers are dead. And they need..."

"Training?" Spike supplied.

"Exactly."

"How many?"

"Well, just four right now, but there are more coming. In fact, it looks like all that are left are coming."

"Homing in on the Hellmouth? Can't say as that's too smart. Like pigeons comin' home to roost."

Buffy nodded. "And 'home' is not a very friendly place. Worst of all, it doesn't look like their watchers were nearly as 'progressive' as Giles."

"That's not good." He looked at her questioningly. "So?"

"They need a crash course in slaying. We're going to need everyone we've got to beat this thing." She pursed her lips. "And they've been... sheltered."

"Well," Spike said reasonably, "it's not like they've been 'called,' have they? Watchers were keepin' 'em safe, I reckon."

"No field experience. I know you're not really up to it yet, but I need you to work with them. I remember fighting my first vampire and it's a good thing my Watcher was there." She looked down. "I kinda missed."

"You?" Spike was incredulous. "You missed?"

"The heart," she said quickly. "I staked him, but I missed the heart. But then, I hit it. And that was the only time ever, okay? So don't start."

He chuckled painfully. Still, it was a chuckle. There was hope yet.

"Guess a vampire with his fangs pulled is next best to the real thing," Spike commented, sitting a little straighter.

"Yeah. I thought so." She looked down, then back up. "I need you. Know you can really help."

He smiled slowly. "Fill that mug, Slayer. Better yet, bring a pint or two. Takes blood to heal. Better get on with it, hadn't I?"

Her concern was evident. "I don't *want* to push, but I have to. You understand, right?"

"No worries, love. You can't push me any harder than I can push me."

+

"Okay. Deep breath." She waited a beat. "Now!"

"Deep breath?" Spike looked slightly amused as he extended his arms in front of him and bowed his head. Buffy pulled the fresh tee-shirt over his hands, up his arms, to his shoulders and down.

His head snapped through the neck of the shirt, face twisted in pain. After taking a moment to be certain he was still in one piece, he spoke. "Well, *that* was bloody sad," he said candidly. The look on his face was a little embarrassed, but he brazened it out. "Can't even dress m'self."

Critically, Buffy appraised him with the jaundiced eye of long association. "You're not very big baddish with that bed head look you've got happening. Those girls aren't gonna be the least bit afraid of you."

"Oh, wonderful!" he said cuttingly. "Christ, Summers, my ribs were in splinters, I can't raise my arms, and you want me to fix my hair?"

"Oh, you're such a baby. It's been three days. You should be worlds better by now," she complained as she reached out to push his hair off his forehead. It sprang back as if it had a life of its own. She smoothed it back again. Same reaction. She bit her lip.

"What? You thought it was easy? Thought I just rolled off the bier lookin' the part?" He raised his eyebrows toward his hairline and tipped his head forward so that he didn't have to use his hands to point. "This hair? Doesn't want to do what it's told. Have to force it, y'see?"

"Well, I'm sorry," she said petulantly, "but you're not very menacing is all."

"Slayer, I've got ribs tryin' to knit, and can barely use my arms without screamin' in pain. Don't think the hair is gonna work any miraculous changes. I'm not Samson here. The hair's for shite."

"Which is Spike-speak for what?"

He shook his head in wonder. Slowly, the vampire slid to the edge of the cot.

"Wait," she fluttered. "What are you..."

"Clear a path to the loo, Buffy. And get me all the hair goo you can muster. Got a demon to tame." He levered himself up, waving the slayer off as he found his feet. Slowly straightening, he took a very deliberate step forward. "God, that hurts." His eyes found the foot of the steps and followed them all the way to the top. He very deliberately drew in a breath and pushed it out dramatically. "Bloody hell. Let's get it over, then." He toddled forward, dragging his right foot a little, and grabbed the stair rail. "Hold it." He stepped aside and nodded to Buffy. She just stared at him. "For pity's sake, get in front of me. One of us nearly paralytic is enough. Don't need you cushionin' my fall."

Buffy smiled as she passed him. "Oh, yes. You're much better today."

+

They didn't have time for it. After the painfully slow progress through the cleared living room and up the stairs, there was no way they weren't going through with this.

But when they reached the bathroom, Spike stopped dead in his tracks - a lot like he'd been kicked in the stomach. He would have backpedaled right out if Buffy hadn't prodded him forward with a tiny push to the small of the back. She watched him stiffen and walk inside. Following him in wasn't that hard. She'd been going in and out of there all summer and into the fall.

She looked at his hair appraisingly, trying to keep him on track. "Do you want to wash it?" she asked pointedly. "Because you... well, I could..."

He swallowed once and carefully bent at the waist so that he could touch his hair. "God! What did they do, roll me in the mud?"

"Maybe, but I think... yeah, there's blood in it."

Slowly he straightened. "Ambiance, you think?" His expression was hopeful.

"I don't think it's ambiance if it's your own blood. I think it's more like poor hygiene," she countered. "And so not you." She pushed her sleeves up. "Now how can we do this?" She brightened. "I know. The kitchen sink!"

"No!" He almost shouted. Swallowing again, he looked at her apologetically. "I will not stand in the community kitchen and let you wash my sodding hair like a child."

She wrinkled her nose. "It *would* play hell with the image you need to project." She snapped her fingers. "The shower!"

His head swung around, eyes wide. "Have you gone completely around the bend?"

"It doesn't take any intuitive leaps here. You can't lean over the sink. You can't lean over the tub. You *can* stand in the shower." She looked at him appraisingly. "Well, lean."

"Are you crazy? Besides the fact that the whole standing around thing sounds like more torture, which I've had more than enough of, thank you very much, there is a problem. If I get out of these pants, by any stretch of the imagination, I doubt I can get back *in* them."

Buffy bit her lip. "Team effort?"

"Hell, no. Harris comes nowhere near me. Or the Watcher either."

She relaxed. "As if."

As he tumbled to her plan, his head swung from side to side. "No."

"Don't be ridiculous," she said derisively. "I'll just help. I won't... look. Not that it would be such a big deal anyway, because... well, you know. I'll be like a... nurse."

"Buffy..." he groaned.

"No, really. I washed you up," she said thoughtfully, "but not all over. You could use a real shower."

"I don't think..."

"Well, you were never shy about it before!" she said in exasperation.

"Yeah, I know, but we were..."

"Yes," she said levelly. "We were. But now we're not, so it's different."

Spike stared vacantly at the floor. "I'll take my own shower in my own time. Which is not now." He pushed out a breath. "I'll get cleaned up and meet them tomorrow. Maybe be well enough for some one-on-one. But I'm not doin' this."

"Fine. Meet them tomorrow. But you're still not going to be up to taking off your own pants!" She gave him a look that let him know that she was right. "Let's just get it over with!"

His eyes were as sharp as jagged blue glass. As quickly as they flared, they went flat. "Fine," he said hollowly.

"C'mon," she said cheerily, going for 'bedside manner.' "Off with the shirt." In surrender, he bent slightly at the waist. She carefully worked the tee up and off. He gasped as she got his head and shoulders back through, snapping him forward in the process. Staggering, he braced himself against the vanity, growling low in his throat.

After a moment, he started undoing his pants. His belt was gone, so that was one obstacle overcome. Buffy walked over and started the water in the shower. "You might have a little trouble stepping over the side of the tub. You can lean on me and that'll help," she said reasonably, keeping her back to him.

"I hate this," he spat out.

She turned, mouth open to reply, and was silenced by the large purple bruise that started near the middle of his back and stretched over his kidney and down onto his right buttock, disappearing into his pants. Shocked, she stood there, only then realizing just how hurt he was.

She'd seen him naked many times, all pale, perfect skin over tight, bunched muscle. He'd always worn his body the way the rest of the world wore new clothes. With certainty, pride. And now...

Seen him bruised, yes. But never anything like this. The contusion was huge and dark, almost brown. And there were places where the skin had been broken. He'd managed to get the pants down below his buttocks and no farther.

"Oh, Spike..." she said under her breath. Ripping her eyes away, she walked over to the linen closet and pulled out a towel. Silently, and with a certain amount of shame at seeing him that way, she handed it to him over his shoulder. He nodded gratefully, still not turning, as he wrapped it around his middle.

She stayed behind him, pushing her hands up under the towel and reaching for his hips. As lightly as she could, she worked the pants down to his knees, then ankles. He reached for the vanity to brace himself, barely able to lift his right foot enough to get them off.

Standing up, she kept her eyes down, looking at the battered jeans in her hands. He turned.

"Spike?" Her voice sounded weak. She'd have to do better. Finding his eyes on her, she sighed. "You really need to soak the bruises." There. That was more like it. Matter of fact. Nursy. "Do you think you can lie in the tub?"

Tears sprang up in his eyes. Buffy was ready to cry herself. He nodded, as if he didn't trust his voice. Without another word, she quickly turned to draw water in the tub, as he leaned against the vanity, towel around his waist, shaking.

"Don't deserve this, you know." His low words echoed in the small room.

She ignored him, trying not to think about what she'd seen. Turning back, she pasted a no-nonsense look on her face. "Let's get you in before you fall down." He stared at the floor. "You can give me the towel after you're in."

She helped him into the tub, staring at his feet and legs, as he slowly lowered himself into the water. He gritted his teeth and snarled a little as the heat of it hit the cuts and bruises. Shifting her eyes to his face, she tried to give him as much privacy as she could. He bucked once, freeing the towel. She took it wordlessly, closing the shower curtain on him and walking the sopping towel to the sink.

"I'll be right back," she said reassuringly. At least, she hoped it sounded that way, as she struggled to keep her voice even. She left the bathroom and leaned bonelessly against the other side of the closed door.

She'd seen more than she wanted to. Had almost cried out at the damage. His right hipbone was so incredibly discolored that she suspected the tip had been shattered. The bruise that had shown up so lividly from behind wrapped around his side to end there in a spectacular display of dark color. She couldn't imagine how they'd made it out of the cave. She gulped, reaching for air that would calm her. Walked down the hall, then picked up her pace to run down the stairs, stomach clenching. She didn't stop until she was outside in the backyard.

There, the nausea won. She threw up the contents of her stomach and then some, as she gasped for breath. She continued to dry heave for a long time.

+

"I'm back," she announced brightly. "Figured the water needed to be warmed up." She pulled the curtain back just enough to drain some water out. She kept her mind blank by staring at the drain between his two white feet until enough was gone to draw more.

Absently, she noticed a pale bruise on his right ankle. It twisted up to his shin. Compared to the rest, it was nothing. She concentrated on the water.

He was mercifully silent. She wouldn't have known what to say anyway. She watched the level of the water rise, finally putting a hand in to push the warm water toward the other end of the tub.

"I'm going to wash your hair now. Cause you can't get your hands up without it hurting, and I think you hurt enough." She closed the curtain and moved to the other end of the tub, pulling the curtain open there.

His eyes were closed, hair already wet. Efficiently, she poured shampoo into his hair and lathered it. "Okay," she said uncomfortably, "I've never done this before, so tell me if I do it wrong."

Gingerly, she reached behind him and captured his neck in one hand, lifting his head. With her other hand, she started to shampoo the back. His hair was fine, but very, very thick. Her hands moved around to the sides and top.

"Okay, rinse and we'll see if I need to do it again."

He sank into the tub. Buffy reached into the water and tried to push the foam out and away from his hair.

With slight pressure on his shoulder, she indicated that he could come up. She sat back on her heels, waiting. As water streamed down his cheeks, he opened his eyes. That bright blue in his pale face almost startled her. The look in them was so grateful, wounded, and ashamed all at once that she felt her stomach lurch again. "I think it's clean," she said quietly. "Soak a little longer, all right?" She pulled the curtain closed.

+

"Dawn, I need some sweat pants. Soft ones. Preferably some you stole from Xander."

The girl looked at her curiously. "Why?"

"I need to wash Spike's pants, and..."

Dawn's eyes snapped away from Buffy as she stomped to the dresser and pulled out a pair of long, gray sweat pants. "Here," she said sharply as she threw them at her sister.

Buffy opened her mouth to say 'Thank you,' but Dawn was back on the bed, turned away from her, clutching the magazine she'd been reading with white fingers. Her shoulders were stiff with resentment.

Returning to the bathroom, Buffy delved into the linen closet again. Luckily, one of the slayers - Molly - seemed to like doing laundry, and had all the towels caught up. One of the more coveted towels was there - large and heavy. She put it over her shoulder and took a deep breath.

"Put your arm around my neck," she said, pushing the shower curtain open and instantly finding his eyes. "See if you can get your feet under you as I lift."

She bent down, eyes closed, and felt his hand close on the back of her neck. Its familiarity almost made her shiver. Straightening slowly, she practically dragged him to his feet. He settled himself briefly, so that he was able to take his hand and drag the towel off her shoulder and wrap it around his waist. Bracing himself against her, he stepped out carefully. She practically bent in half trying to help him ease his right foot out.

She walked him to the vanity and leaned him against it. Grabbing two more towels, she handed him one, and went to work with the other. He dried his stomach and part of his chest, but that was the extent of it. She blotted the rest of him dry - legs and back, careful not to break or pull at any of the now-soft scabs. At her prompting, he lowered his head, as she laid a towel around his shoulders and went to work on his hair with the barely used one.

She could see in his eyes that he'd gotten over the worst of it. Being treated like an invalid wasn't really a Spike thing, but necessity was a mother and he was smart enough to realize it.

Maybe she took a little longer than she should to towel-dry such short hair, but when she'd finished, his head was a mass of short, white-blond curls. He reached for the goop that had been laid out on the lavatory and chose one, leaning over to rub it into his hair.

"Got a comb?" He looked at her sideways, still bent at the waist.

Buffy almost jumped at the sound of his voice. Scrambling in a drawer, she pulled out a wide-toothed one. She started to pull it through his hair.

He straightened. "Don't," he said softly. It hit her like a slap.

His eyes were on her, while hers stayed locked on his hair. Slowly, she let her eyes fall to his.

And his eyes weren't embarrassed anymore. They were patient and understanding and loving. He smiled sadly as he took the comb from her fingers, leaned over and dragged the comb through his hair to flatten the curls.

"Just a sec," he told her, "and we'll get me dressed."

+

It had taken two and a half hours by the time it was all said and done. She'd shooed the antsy, potty-bound slayers-to-be out of the hall and helped him move down the empty stairs. In the living room, she'd felt Xander's eyes on her as she propelled the limping vampire through the hall to the basement. She heard the stair rail squeak as he put his weight on it, trying to take some of the burden off of her. By the time they'd reached the bottom, Buffy realized the sheets were marred with dried blood, and moved quickly back upstairs to the closet and down again to change them. He leaned weakly against the washing machine as she hurried.

By the time she was able to get him back into bed, he was completely exhausted. His head hit the pillow and his eyes slid shut.

She'd had no idea he was hurt as badly as he was. He actually looked... small. Of course, the oversized sweat pants and the obligatory dark tee-shirt that also seemed to be Xander-sized would explain that, she told herself logically.

As she turned to go back upstairs to face the wide eyes and accusing glares that she knew were waiting, she heard him settle on the squeaky cot.

"Thank you," he whispered softly.

+

She let him rest for two more days, not mentioning the training, but bringing him tidbits from the disaster that was the result of too many inhabitants - most of them female - in a one-bathroom house. The relating of the 'tidbits' bore a huge resemblance to 'venting.'

"Frankly, I'd be better off moving down here and letting them completely take over the rest of the house. Avoiding the kitchen would definitely be of the good. Xander has given up trying to repair anything until this is over, but he won't stop talking about it. Willow flips between 'worried Willow face' and 'happy Willow face,' and Anya's been sulking off and on. Then, there's Andrew..."

"Andrew...? Oh. Yeah." Their voices sounded the mantra together. "Tucker's brother." She flashed a lop-sided grin that mirrored his.

Spike picked at his tee-shirt. "You haven't said anythin' about the training. Is the Watcher handling it?"

Buffy sighed. "Giles is mired down in the few musty books and yellow files he managed to get out of Watcher Central before it went 'boom.' And how Ripperish was the breaking and entering, anyway?" She frowned. "Feels weird knowing those people are gone - that the whole place is gone. I mean, I know I have a small problem with authority, Principal Snyder being a flashy neon example, but the Council was kind of like having a safety net. Well, okay, 'safety' is a strong word. More like a net with a big hole in it, but still... It was nice to know I could do the whole 'selling of my soul' thing if I ever really needed them."

"Yeah, right wankers all. Your Watcher was cut from different cloth. Overall, not real impressed. Except the one. Had some intelligence, she did," he recalled. There was a slight smirk playing around his lips.

It was such a familiar expression that Buffy realized she was smiling. "That's better," she commented.

He looked surprised. "What?"

"I haven't seen you do that thing for awhile. With your mouth, I mean."

"What thing?"

"The smirk."

"I smirk?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Or that either," Buffy said, indicating the eyebrow with a nod of her head. She took in a breath and prepared to reopen the training discussion. "You're really better. Not just conscious-better, but 'better-better.'"

He smiled in appreciation of her concern, and the delicate way she was testing the water. "Yeah, I am. And I'm thinkin' it's about time to meet the little Slay Bits you've got livin' here."

She expelled the breath she was holding. "Things have been quiet. Too quiet. This thing isn't close to being over. Not *this* time. The last time..."

"Last time? There was a last time?" he asked in surprise.

Buffy looked down. "The First seems to have a thing about souled vampires."

So quickly that the slayer was startled, the vampire got off the bed and began pacing.

"You've seen this before." It wasn't a question.

"Yes. Yes, I have."

"Peaches."

She nodded.

"Well, isn't this just grand?" He said sarcastically. "Maybe we should give him a call in L.A., get his learned opinion."

"Wouldn't help. He didn't beat it."

Spike stopped, flabbergasted. "He didn't?"

"Not really," she said wryly. "The sun didn't cooperate that day. Then, it was over."

Thoughtfully, Spike sat down on the cot. "So it might not be done with me. Might not be finished," he said levelly. "'Not time yet.' Said that about you," he explained. "About killing you. You weren't 'in order.'"

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked in a puzzled voice.

He shrugged. "Off my head at the time. But that's what I said." He looked down at his hands and slowly corrected himself. "What *it* said."

"Well, I'm not waiting for it to come to me, Spike. I did that with Glory and you know how that turned out."

He glanced up and saw her eyes glinting in determination. "Buffy, you know I'll do anything you need," he said, stricken at the memories.

"Just help me keep them safe."

He nodded, chin firm. "Til the end of the..." His eyes widened and dropped in shame. "Oh, Christ!"

Reassuringly, her hand found his briefly and squeezed. He looked up gratefully.

"I know you will," she said solemnly. She stood and gathered him up with her eyes. "Are you ready?"

He stood beside her. "Yeah."

"Things are different this time," she said firmly. "I'm different." She smiled. "You? Not so different."

"No?"

"Other than the whole soul thing, no. Not in this. I need you and you're here."

"Well, yeah." He was a little embarrassed at the praise. "Got nothin' better to do, right?"

She grinned indulgently. "Right..."

He started upstairs after her. His back was straighter, and he moved with a purpose.

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