By Valerie X
Buffy sat down on her back porch and put her head into her hands.
It was a familiar area for her. When her mom was sick or when her friends were fighting, she would end up here. For some reason it was better to be miserable outdoors than in. Maybe because everything she looked at inside her house reminded her of some problem. There was a pile of unopened mail at one end of the dining room table: mostly bills, and a few greeting-card-shaped letters, one from her father in Spain and one from Giles in England. The bills were a simple matter -- she couldn’t pay them, so she wouldn’t open them. The cards necessitated a more difficult decision. She couldn’t decide whether to take them up to her bedroom later at night, when Dawn would be asleep, open them, read them, and cry softly, or to just set them on fire and be done with it. In the kitchen there were further unpleasant reminders, including cabinets stripped down to the barest products: some baking powder, a half-empty bottle of vegetable oil, and a handful of ancient pasta in a torn Ziploc bag.
Outside she could pretend these things didn’t exist. The air was thick, seeping into a veil of black at the edge of her property. The evening noises, which had seemed deafening in her bedroom, weakened in their assault once she resigned herself to the fact that she’d be getting no sleep tonight. The rustling of leaves became a whisper, the crickets a far-off static.
In her mind, she added the long list of numbers again. On Monday her bank balance was .47. On Tuesday she’d rustled through the mail pile and taken out those bills in pink envelopes. She mailed out around for the phone, for gas and electric, and 0 for the mortgage, counting on her first paycheck to cover them.
But now it was Friday night, and immediately after stopping in the crowded bank to deposit her check, she was broke.
She’d been working at the Doublemeat Palace for two weeks, so she’d expected to get her full 0. But the way the pay periods worked, the check was only for her first week. After taxes, she had around 0.
350 + 34.47 - 60 - 30 - 300 = negative five dollars and fifty-three cents. And since two weeks would go by until she got another paycheck, all she could do was sit and wonder which check would bounce and which bill would go unpaid.
She had exactly one dollar in the front right pocket of her jeans, and about two dollars in change in a jar in her bedroom. Throughout the week, she’d been exploring the deep recesses of the pantry when preparing dinner, inventing such meals as macaroni-cheese-turkey-burger-casserole and wild-rice-peanut-butter-pot-pie. By now, all the basic food supplies were exhausted. There was no milk, no bread, no butter, no macaroni and cheese, and no leftover pizza.
And while Willow had contributed lately by doing the grocery shopping and taking Dawn out for meals occasionally, that ended when Mrs. Rosenberg saw two B’s in her daughter’s first-semester grades and cut down on her spending money. Willow had casually mentioned this to Buffy Thursday, promising to make it up to her next month when her student loans came in, and then taking off for the weekend to enjoy indulge in home-cooked meals and attempt to soften-up her angry parents.
And now it was a little after ten at night, and Buffy sat on the back porch listening to the muffled sounds of Dawn in her bedroom, on the telephone with one of her friends. In an hour or so Dawn would be asleep, and then after about eight hours Dawn would be awake again, smiling cheerfully at her bleary-eyed sister, expecting a big Saturday-morning breakfast.
And Buffy had three dollars and some vegetable oil.
She’d briefly considered borrowing money from Xander and Anya, but then realized that their wedding was less than a month away, and Buffy couldn’t bear to be that pathetic.
Even though she honestly didn’t think she could get much more pathetic than she already felt.
Getting a job was supposed to make things better. But her life lately seemed like a black hole, sucking up everything - money, home, family, friends - until everything just sucked.
A strand of hair blew in front of her face, but she didn’t have the energy to push it away.
She didn’t have the energy to seek out liquor she couldn’t afford to dull her deep sadness. She didn’t have the energy to walk up to her bedroom, curl up in her blankets, and lie awake all night wishing she was still dead. She didn’t have the energy to have the hysterical crying fit she deserved. And she certainly didn’t have the energy for him.
“Spike, go away,” she said softly.
A lean figure moved out from behind a cluster of darkness and trees and lit a cigarette.
She could almost hear him bite back an annoying comment, which, to Spike, probably passed for compassion. The depression vibes must have been rolling off her in thick waves, because he kept his distance. Which was good, because lately whenever he was within five feet of her, with his arms and his chest and that soft stretch of skin at the curve of his neck, her brain switched into non-functioning-mode. Which was usually a good thing. Hence the wrongness of it all.
Lately Buffy didn’t like herself when she was around him. Oh, sure, she liked the kiss-curve-of-neck-shut-down-brain part of being around Spike. It was the other part that bothered her. The part where she would tell him to go away one minute and then be straddling him the next. The part where she would try to convince him that they couldn’t be together and then spend the next two nights convincing herself that the dark forces of Sunnydale were probably gathering somewhere around Spike’s crypt, until she ran into him and commenced with the straddling.
It was pathetic.
When he eventually did turn up, either in her backyard or in the cemetery where she was pretending to not be looking for him, he would stand there with his big fake swagger and oral fixation, unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth, eyes flickering between big bad and kicked puppy, and dammit, she wasn’t made of stone.
But now was not the time for sexy and morally ambiguous. Tonight she was busy being miserable. She kept her eyes down, and for a long time he stood like a black-clad statue illuminated by thick white smoke.
“Dawn gets scared,” he said, as if explaining something.
She looked up despite herself. While Buffy had been able to convince Dawn that visiting Spike in the cemetery at night was supremely stupid, they still saw each other. On Saturday afternoons when Dawn disappeared to make the rounds of her friends’ houses, Buffy was sure that Spike’s crypt was a required stop. And she knew that Spike would check up on Dawn when she was home by herself. Some nights she would come home from patrolling, having done a quick couple of slays around town and a thorough sweep of the area around Spike’s crypt, find Dawn asleep on the couch and dirty footprints and ashes on the front porch, and her throat would close up just a little bit.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Buffy muttered. And there wasn’t. No big evil vampires or demon-snakes or gods trying to kill them, just three lame-o’s coming up with plans to aggravate her to death and a pile of unopened mail that seemed much more menacing than any super-villain.
Spike shrugged and took a step closer. “When no one’s home with her, girl gets nervous. For a long time she had your mum looking out for her, and then this time last year she was the center of everyone’s universe. People wouldn’t let her be alone for a second. Now she’s not so important, so when you’re late coming home from work, she gets a minor wiggens. Thinks that if you got yourself all beat up by some random evil thing, no one would even tell her; she’d just be alone and waiting.” He dropped the cigarette and ground out the orange glow with his boot. “Didn’t go inside,” he continued. “Just gave her a wave from the window, before you got home.”
Buffy shook her head sadly and looked down into her lap. “I thought she hated it when I made her have a babysitter.”
“There’s a big difference between what kids say they want and what they actually want.”
His voice was closer now, dangerously pushing the five-feet-brain-jello mark. Buffy kept her eyes on her hands. The antibacterial soap at the Doublemeat had dried them out, and the skin of her fingers and knuckles was red and white, threatening to bleed.
“William the Bloody, Vamp Psychologist,” she muttered.
“Right pathetic, isn’t it?”
She looked up again to see him leaning against the porch, all evil-puppy-eyes and fleshy-tasty-neck. Dammit.
“Join the club,” she said. “I’m the President.”
“This a meeting then?”
Oh, god, he was going to sit down. How was she supposed to properly mope when he was spreading his undead pheromones all over her? It wasn’t fair. And she had bigger problems to deal with.
“Yep,” she said. “And the official sponsor of the Pathetic Buffy Club is whatever’s in that flask in your jacket.” She held out her hand.
“I’m not giving you my liquor,” Spike said, sitting down at the other end of the top step, far enough from her that she couldn’t accuse him of anything, but close enough that she seriously felt the need for a drink.
“Come on,” Buffy said weakly, focusing on her bruised hands once again. “It’s been a tremendously bad day.”
“And throwing up on my shoes isn’t going to make it any better.”
“Well, not for you,” she muttered.
A light on the second floor of the house switched off. Dawn was going to bed, beginning the countdown to when she would wake up and Buffy would have to explain why there was no food in the house.
“Stupid alcoholic vampire won’t share,” she said softly.
“Yeah, and that’s your biggest problem, isn’t it?” he replied sarcastically. “Come on, we’ll go kill it, have us a nice big fight, get in a quick shag before daylight, and all will be well.”
She could feel him looking at her, but refused to look up. She could sense the kicked-puppy eyes. Dammit.
“Is that all?” He chuckled. “With the way you’re sulking about, I thought some big demony thing just ate Xander. Not that I’d care, mind you. Especially with the way he’s been strutting around lately, all unresolved sexual tension and manly prancing. I think he wants me.”
“You think everyone wants you.”
“Everyone usually does.” He shrugged. “Can’t help it, Slayer. I’m a pretty, pretty man. Here.”
A fistful of bills broke her gaze from the scaly skin of her fingers. She looked up at him. “I can’t take money from you.”
She forced her face into a resolved glare, which was hard considering that she was looking at his face, all open and simple. She hated when he did that honest look. It was too pretty. Dammit.
“You probably got it from...something...evil,” she sputtered out.
“No,” he said, as if explaining to a child. “I got it from some vamps in a house downtown, after I dusted them all. So take it.”
“I can’t,” she said, her expression moving from firm to sad. “It makes everything all weird...with us.”
“Oh, of course,” he said sardonically. “Because before this, everything with us was so simple and normal.”
“You know what I mean,” she muttered. She looked up at Dawn’s window. “When she wakes up there won’t even be breakfast.” She shook her head and returned her eyes downward. “She doesn’t know how bad it is.”
“Okay, then, how ‘bout this,” he suggested. “I was about to go to the Super Food World, you know, that 24-hour place. Stock up on smokes, beer, and blood. You come with and we’ll buy the kid some waffles and what not.”
“I can’t take money from you.”
Spike groaned and rolled his eyes. “It’s not taking money. It’s just coming along and picking up a few things. Besides, it’s a long walk to my crypt, and a case of beer is heavy, so you’ll make up for it that way, super-strength-girl.”
He stood up, but Buffy kept her face down.
He kicked her foot lightly. “Come on.”
“Just a few things,” she said, standing and frowning. “And we can’t...” she looked away, flustered. “You know, do anything.”
“I’ll try to restrain myself from shagging you in the frozen food aisle,” he said with a smirk.
As they made their way around to the front of the house, Buffy punched him in the shoulder, and her rough knuckles connected with the cool skin at the collar of his shirt, momentarily shutting down the part of her mind that told her grocery shopping with Spike was wrong on a supreme level.
Continued in Part Two