Disclaimer: Thanks be to the Joss. The Joss is good. In the footsteps of the Joss do we gratefully warm ourselves, nor expect we thanks or remuneration. (Though feedback would be nice ...)
It wasn't going to be the way he'd dreamed, all those times he'd saved her, every night. Real people never matched your fantasies. They weren't predictable. They didn't do what you'd planned for them.
And all in all it hadn't been a bad summer, really. Buffy was dead, yes. The hole in his heart never healing, as if a stake had punctured it and come out the other side. The dark well of sorrow and pain brimming inside him last thing in the morning and first thing at night, so the pain began before he was even awake enough to remember why. Okay, so it hadn't been fun. But it hadn't been bad. It had been better than not feeling anything at all.
There had even been pleasure, in patrolling with her sorry little gang of friends, getting his nightly dose of violence and of company, saving their asses more than once, more than a dozen times if the truth were known. Seeing if he could get a rise out of Giles, more out of habit than malice. Taking care of Dawn because he'd told Buffy he would. And at least he could tell himself that what he was doing would have pleased her, if she knew.
It hadn't been bad. For any of them. They'd all been keeping it together for Buffy. Trying to do what Buffy would have done, what Buffy would have wanted them to do. It gave them a focus. And they'd still had each other. All of them had. Even him.
Not like now. Her friends were in chaos, he never saw Dawn, and nothing he did seemed to please the girl. She came closer and ran away again like a frightened three-year-old. She was more vicious than she'd been when they were enemies. She was moody and bitter and violent, and she acted as if she hated and despised him.
Sure, he knew she didn't. But what good did that do him? She didn't know it. And she treated him just as badly as if it were true.
And sure, she had some excuse. She'd been through a lot. But hell, so had they all. So had he. She'd spent five months in heaven. He'd spent five months seeing her broken body every night in his nightmares, lying on the concrete at his feet. Who had the better deal?
And sure he was no Prince Charming, but he'd paid his dues, damn it. He didn't deserve this.
There was the spectacular sex, of course. Truly spectacular. But he could get a shag elsewhere whenever he felt like it, and not be abused and humiliated afterwards.
What it came down to, what it really came down to, was this. It didn't matter what her excuse was. It didn't matter what she didn't know. It didn't matter what he did or didn't deserve. What mattered was, she was treating him like shit. And he didn't like it.
Sometimes he didn't know why he bothered. Correction. Lately he never knew why he bothered. It was time to draw a line under it. Say goodbye, wish her well, and move on.
Which was why he was standing outside the Summers house. Smoking again. Wondering if he should just walk up and knock on the door to tell her he was leaving town, take care of yourself, tell the Nibblet I'll send her a card.
And be insulted and refused entrance before he could even begin to get the words out. She didn't seem to realize, or care, how much her words hurt him. He didn't even want to approach her anymore.
Why bother. He'd just finish this cigarette and be on his way.
He hadn't heard her coming up the walk behind him. He turned to face her, waited for her first jab of the night. Enough insults and she'd probably want to screw. But he'd had it. As foreplay went, it did nothing for him anymore.
She looked tired. Tired enough that her angry mask had slipped away, leaving that haunted look she'd worn when she first came back. She'd learned to hide it well.
"Slayer." He stubbed out the cigarette. "You're home late."
"Night shift, I had to close the store." She walked past him to the porch, and sat down wearily on the steps. The sag of her shoulders touched him. She was about done in, poor thing. He suppressed a stab of compassion.
"I wondered. No energy left to attack me with?"
She looked up at him. "Not really." Her gaze slid to the step beside her. It was an invitation to sit down. He didn't move towards her and she looked up at him again, a bit surprised, he thought. I'm not your lapdog, Slayer, whatever you think. He stayed by the tree. Time to tell her and go.
"I wanted to talk to you." Her words interrupted him before he began.
"That's a new one, Slayer." He was taken aback, and covered it. "You haven't wanted to talk at all."
"I know." She glanced again at the porch step beside her, and again he ignored the invitation. Her shoulders slumped a little more, and it was hard to resist her. But he was done with meeting her more than halfway.
"I'm sorry," she said, surprising him. "I've had a lot to - it doesn't matter." She shrugged faintly. "It's no excuse. I'm sorry."
"For what, Slayer?" This time she could do the coming.
She pushed her hand through her hair. "For being such a bitch. I just - it's been very confusing for me."
He took a step towards her before he could stop, and willed himself to simply listen. She looked up at him and then away, down at her hands, clasped on her knees.
"I wish we could go back."
"To when?" He chose to misunderstand her. "To when you were dead? You've made no secret of that. Get a life, Slayer. It's not heaven, but it's all there is down here."
She looked as if he'd slapped her, and he regretted the last line. But she'd been a bitch for so long now. She wasn't the only one who used anger as a defense. A small part of him said, you're 120 years older than she is, you should know better. He felt a pinprick of shame.
After a minute she continued determinedly, and he felt a touch of admiration. "No. To before. To when we were friends. It was so much easier then."
So she missed it too.
He stopped resisting and crossed the lawn to sit down beside her on the step. She shot him a look of relief and gratitude. She knew she didn't deserve softness now, after the way she'd been behaving. But it was hard not to give it to her when she asked for it. It was hard not to give her anything she asked for.
"We can still be friends, Slayer," he said gently. It would be hard to give up the, well, the sex, but it would be better than what they were doing now. He could be happy with her friendship, if those were the options.
She was shaking her head, though. "No." Her head was turned away, but he could see her cheek, burning with hot blood. She was blushing.
"You want me that much?" This could be good too. "Friends can have sex too, you know." If she would stop being a bitch, he'd stay, sex or no sex. But sex would be a definite bonus. Not what he wanted, but oh, so close.
She was still shaking her head. When she looked at him again her eyes were shining. As he watched tears began to streak down her cheeks.
"I can't, Spike. I can't - " she swallowed. "I really miss you. I miss hanging out and talking to you. The way we were, you know, after I came back. But I don't know what to do with this. I - " she took a shaky breath and closed her eyes, making a clear effort to calm herself. "I don't just want you. I don't just want to fuck you, I mean."
His eyes widened. He'd heard her use that word, when she was surrounding him, her scent, her warmth, her legs around his back as he thrust hard into her and she was begging him, please, Spike. What do you want, Slayer? Tell me. I want you - I want you to fuck me - please, fuck me - harder - oh God - oh please - he'd heard that. But the word on her lips now, in the cool of the evening, as they sat together quietly on the porch steps. He'd never heard that. She'd never wanted to admit they were doing the deed. It was arousing and touching at the same time. Buffy was finally trying to deal. He said nothing. Let her go on and see where she got to.
She was continuing slowly. "I told myself it was just sex and I could forget it and not do it anymore and things would just go away, back to where they were before. I could pretend it didn't happen. It wasn't really me."
"It was your great-aunt Zelda?"
She gave him the weak smile his feeble joke deserved, but the tension was broken as he had hoped, and she grew calmer. "The thing is it's not true. It was me. And I've never been one to just - fuck - someone and not care about them. If you hadn't meant something to me I wouldn't have been there."
"But it's so hard." She glanced at him, but his face was giving nothing away. This was a journey she needed to make without his help. "I'd rather not care about you, because it's going to hurt so much. I - we don't suit each other. It's only going to be painful and horrible and all end badly. And what happens when your chip breaks down? And - "
"Hey, Slayer." She was working herself up again. It was time to respond. She was afraid. She was willing to admit she was afraid. He'd stopped hoping she would ever get this far. He put a hand on her shoulder and she turned to him, willing to be interrupted. A good sign.
"You can't foretell the future. No one can. It would be different if - " he searched for words, and settled for a phrase from his Victorian youth. "If my intentions weren't honourable. But I'm not here to make you miserable or to use you and forget you, or just to score another Slayer, if that's what you think. I love you. You know it."
He waited until he saw a miniscule nod of her head. "You're right," he went on. "Bad things could happen. They happen every day. But not always." He hesitated. Here was the big question. "Tell me. If I stayed the man you know now, the one sitting right here beside you, would that be good enough for you?"
Her eyes were on his face. She nodded again, slowly. "It would be enough to be going on with. But what if you don't?"
"Then you have my permission to stake me."
She drew a breath. "I hope it doesn't come to that. I never want to have to -" She turned her body a little farther towards him and didn't finish her sentence. "What is it you want, Spike?" she asked instead. "You never said."
You never gave me the chance, he nearly replied, and bit the words back. "I want to see where this goes," he said honestly. "I want to treat you right and watch your back and help you smile a little more. I want to love you and find out what happens next."
He leaned a little closer and breathed in her ear, "I want to hear you screaming my name when you come again after you thought you couldn't do it one more time, in my arms. In my bed. Every night." He heard her heartbeat accelerate and she gasped softly. No question she wanted him. His hand left her shoulder and began to slowly stroke her back.
But she pulled away, and took his hand in hers. "We're not done talking, Spike." Her traitor thumb began stroking his palm as she spoke. She could never touch him lately without a caress, he'd noticed. Her body knew. "I haven't told you what I want."
He raised his eyebrows and waited for her.
She swallowed. "I want - I want the same thing. I want to see where this goes. I want to love you and find out what happens next."
He was stunned. When the Slayer's ready to deal, he thought hazily, she deals all the way. No question the girl had courage. He searched for words. "Do you mean - uh - "
"Enough to be going on with," she answered. "More than that. Enough to hurt. Enough to frighten me. To make me want to run away. But I won't get anywhere I want to go by running."
She hadn't said the words and she knew it. He waited. She looked away from him, at their clasped hands. "I just wish I didn't. I wish we could go back to before I loved you. It was so much easier then." A deep breath. "But if I didn't love you, I wouldn't be here. And I know there's no going back."
That was his brave Slayer. He'd been afraid he'd never see her again. Death had a way of knocking the stuffing out of you. He was proud of her.
"No, love. There isn't," he answered simply. "Glad you see that at last." He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. She looked up at him somberly, and he touched her face. "Don't look so tragic. There's only up to go from here."
She smiled at him fleetingly. "I know." As he watched, her cheek began to grow rosy again. What was she thinking now? "Oh - and - my bed too, sometimes?" she said.
He grinned and saw her answering smile as he stood. "No time like the present, Slayer. Race you."
She caught up with him halfway up the stairs.