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I am sooo tired. Guess which idiot arranged to be travelling on her posting day. And stayed up till nearly 5 am last night playing with a fancy new iMac. I will be so glad to be back in my own house. Although I wouldn’t have minded taking that computer with me. Now I’m stuck back on this weird internet café machine that today is translating LJ into Russian. Which is helpful.

Story Starts Here



EPILOGUE


Buffy twirled her stake in a light-hearted fashion as she exited the last empty cemetery of her patrol tonight, turning onto Revello Drive and the last straight before home. A year ago it would have been a common enough sight, but this year's Buffy was only just rediscovering the whole light-hearted thing. It had been a funny old year all round, the Slayer was glad it was coming to an end, but more importantly she was looking forward to what came next. A new year and a fresh start, new resolutions and hopes that she sorely needed.

Since Willow had brought her back from the dead, sometimes the thought of a new day was more than Buffy could bear. The last straw had been Sweet. If not for her obligation to Dawn and the teen's plaintive musical plea, Buffy would have danced herself to death that night. But darkest hours and all that, dawn had brought a new Buffy not weighed down by the necessity of being nice to the friends she resented, the secret that had paralyzed her.

Of course the new dawn had also brought a departing watcher. And her new awareness of the life still going on around her opened Buffy's eyes to a whole new world of problems. Her best friend, the powerful, recently jilted and occasionally scary witch. Her sister, the juvenile delinquent. Her fractured and distant support group. But still, this week, they weren't problems that made Buffy want to give up and die. The Hellmouth at least had been considerate of her depression; hellions and evil music hall aside, the biggest threat this year had been a diamond stealing frost monster and three little boys, and Buffy was starting to suspect those two little bads were one and the same.

And it was nearly Christmas. Season of good cheer. When Dawn returned home - from a checked, ratified and adult supervised evening shopping trip - maybe they could bond over Christmas lights. It would be their first Christmas truly alone and Buffy was determined it would be cheerful. Even on a budget of zero dollars. First thing in the new year, Buffy planned to redouble her efforts at job hunting. In the meantime, they'd make a good Christmas from whatever was in the house.

Patrol had been pretty much dead, but as Buffy neared her own house she could sense a vampire. A more powerful feeling than the fledglings she'd been dealing with lately, the tingle familiar and yet not. It only got stronger as she approached the front porch, until she was all but certain the vampire was inside. As there was no living person home, that meant it had to be a vampire that had been invited in before. She opened the front door carefully, half expecting Angel but not prepared to take chances. The lights were on, TV too, and from the living room doorway Buffy could see the top of a blond head, one black clad leg hanging comfortably over the edge of the armchair.

"Spike."

The vampire himself turned his head to look at her as she entered the room, smiled morosely and turned back to the infomercials.

"What are you doing in my house?"

"That whole not-killing-people thing didn't work out so well for me," he said to the remote, flicking through channels as he spoke. "You shouldn't leave your doors open, by the way, Slayer."

"It saves on locks." Even from her side-on view, the vampire looked rough as hell, gaunt in face and older, though it was impossible. Buffy had barely thought of the brash, blond vampire in the year since she'd last seen him but she couldn't remember his cheekbones being quite that sharp, or so many lines around his eyes.

It had been remarkably easy to put Spike out of her mind for the last year. Sure, he'd been the gossip for a couple of weeks. Giles had wanted to know every detail, presumably to preserve such peculiar behaviour for posterity in his watcher's journal, Willow ooohed and Xander gaped when she recounted her tale but it soon blew over. After a couple of weeks had passed and it became obvious Spike wasn't going to ride straight back into town, Buffy chose to forget about something so hard to process. Dawn had remembered a little longer, furious with the vampire for keeping her out of the action, even more so for leaving town while she was still unconscious, but absolutely livid with her sister for driving him away. But even Dawn had forgotten her grudge, and her crush, when she discovered her true origins. And if the teen had had fantasies during the time of her capture, those long minutes on the top of that tower, of a certain blond hero bursting in to save the day, she'd never shared them with her older sister. Between her mom dying, the Initiative's second smackdown and the threat of Glory, then later her own death and resurrection, Buffy certainly hadn't thought of him at all.

She decided now that things could just stay that way.

"You can't be here, Spike."

"Well I am, aren't I?" The remote settled on another infomercial. "You wanna fight, Slayer?"

"Not really. I want you to leave."

"Did you not hear me? Couldn't stop killing people."

"I never seriously imagined you would," said the Slayer dryly. "But it's nice that you tried. So how about you move right back out of town before I stake you?"

"I did try," he continued, as if she'd never spoken. "But I'd get drunk, or pissed off, or hungry... Or I'd just forget about stopping. Snapping their necks afterwards? That gets to be a reflex after a century or so."

"I really don't need to hear the details. Just go."

"No." For only the second time he turned his eyes to hers, gave her another humourless smile. "I want to fight."

Buffy sighed. Of course she was surprised to find Spike making himself at home in her empty house, but at the same time she wasn't. If she had thought about Spike at all in the last year, she would have assumed he'd be turning up again, because - crazy vampire in love with her? That would never get old for the higher powers she had been created to amuse. Besides, it was what Spike did: waltz back into town whenever he was least expected, admittedly usually with more noise and, well, flair.

"Have it your way. Could we at least take it outside?"

Spike turned off the TV, tossing the remote on to the sofa in silent acquiescence. Buffy led the way to the back garden and he followed. She never once cast an eye back to the vampire at her exposed rear and he made no move to start the fight early.

The battle itself was short and far from thrilling; from the first half-hearted exchange of blows Buffy found herself feeling oddly disappointed. Standing in the moonlight, minus the ubiquitous duster, the vampire looked almost emaciated and there was no weight behind any of his punches. No ingenuity behind his fighting, no joy in it, no banter. It was hard to remember the fear he'd inspired when he'd first promised to kill her. Or the thrill he'd inspired in later confrontations, that unique buzz of facing a worthy opponent, in a fight to the death so elegant that death itself felt impossible.

Buffy too was going through the motions. She wouldn't go as far as to admit she had a soft spot for Spike, but it was much harder to hold on to the hate when vampires insisted on doing such bizarre things as trying to stop killing people for her. And she felt she owed him a heavy debt. He'd saved her life and said he loved her, and shallow and carnal and short lived though she'd taken those feelings to be, his actions surely earned him something. Because this effortless trouncing felt more like execution than victory, even though he'd undeniably started the fight. And as Buffy threw him to the ground, landing with her knee in his chest, she was half waiting for a punchline. Maybe 'I've kidnapped your friends, so dust me and they'll all die, bwah-ha-ha-ha.'

But this new and skinny Spike didn't even manage a quip about her straddling him as she pushed the tip of the stake against his chest. He made no move to escape, closed his eyes, looking for all the world as if he was ready for the end. If this was an evil plan it was a cunning one indeed.

"Third time lucky, eh Slayer?"

"What's that?"

He opened one eye. "Third time you'll be staking me. Reckon it'll stick this time." His eye closed again, he seemed braced for the stake. Nearly a minute passed with neither moving. Spike opened his eyes again.

"C'mon Slayer, get it over with."

"I don't want to," Buffy confessed. "I mean... it's too easy. You're obviously not at the top of your game and I... well I owe you a favour. So how about we go back to the plan where you stay out of Sunnydale?"

"Can't. I've tried. Can't leave you alone, Slayer, I'll always be coming after you. Best you end it now."

God, she knew he was right. She should have staked him every chance she'd been given and there'd been plenty of them. It was wrong to let him kill others because he'd spared her sister but it was near impossible to drive the stake home with those blue eyes looking at her so piteously. Out of sight could be out of mind, she only had to get him out of sight.

"Try harder." Buffy pulled her hand back and his eyes widened.

"No! You have to! I need... I'll come after your friends. I'll kill your sister."

Buffy watched, unmoving, unable to take the threat seriously as he lay on her front lawn, virtually begging to be staked. Fine, maybe it was a soft spot. He'd said he loved her, for God's sake. That's the kind of behaviour designed for inducing soft spots.

"Right now, I think my sister could take you."

"Do you know how many people I killed since I promised to stop? Twenty-seven!"

"Twenty-seven? In a whole year?"

Okay, so it was an inappropriate reaction. But twenty-seven didn't sound like an awful lot. He'd been gone a year, give or take a Christmas eve, 365 days, that was... Well more mental arithmetic that Buffy needed right now, but definitely less than one a week. And he'd counted them. He really had tried, which led to the astonishing ergo, he really did love her. A scary conclusion that tipped the known world on its head, but not one that really helped with the current problem.

"Killed them 'cause I couldn't stop," Spike continued quietly. "Didn't want to stop, not really. Just knew I couldn't have you till I did, just wanted to prove myself. All dead because of me. Thousands dead because of me. You think some of them weren't little girls like your sister? That I didn't make them scream before I killed them?"

Tears were streaming freely down his face now. More than a little shocked, Buffy stood. Reaching a swift decision she pulled the vampire to his feet too.

"I can't stop, Buffy. I thought I could fix it. Even now, can't stop thinking about feeding, slipping my fangs into soft flesh..."

"Well that's because you aren't eating properly," said Buffy practically. "Like thinking about chocolate cake while you're on a diet. Get back in the house."

"No. You have to do it, I can't... Please, Buffy."

Firmly, inexorably, Buffy pushed him towards the back door. She had less than no idea of what to do with a crying vampire - that was way outside her remit and so unnatural she could hardly credit what she was seeing. Buffy knew that look far too intimately, his despair chillingly reminiscent of the expression that had stared back at Buffy from her own bathroom mirror until recently. She knew all too well what it was like to want death, oblivion, it wasn't a state she could ever have imagined Spike would end up in. No creature that lived entirely in the moment should be able to feel despair; and Spike was nothing without that overwhelming lust for life. With a depressingly easy detachment, she decided to focus on the practicalities and pulled out her cell phone.

"Willy? You remember how I haven't broken your nose for months now? Don't you think you owe me a favour?"

Spike took one hesitant step after another as Buffy wrangled a blood delivery, all the while herding him slowly into the house. He jammed in the doorway, bony fingers clinging on to the door frame as Buffy pushed impatiently from behind.

"You have to do it," he said quietly, head bowed. "I'm dangerous."

It was almost laughable. Tiny without the duster and strut, his new waif look making Buffy loom large in comparison. And though she couldn't now see his face, she knew it was hopeless and tear streaked. Buffy could barely look at him, never mind stake him, and wasn't ready to deal with the why. Firmly she peeled his hands from the doorframe, pulling him around to face her and propelling him backwards into her sitting room, onto the sofa.

"Why don't you tell me what happened to you?"

Effectively trapped, the vampire stared at his hands as Buffy hovered over him. He was silent so long she began to wonder if he'd heard the question. She couldn't imagine any answer for herself, he'd obviously driven himself half out of his head with starvation but that was more of another question than a conclusion. Spike had had no problems acquiring or drinking animal blood while he was chipped, how he'd managed to get in this state was as much a mystery as his tears.

"I got it back," he muttered eventually.

"Got what back? The chip? You put the chip back?"

It was the only sense Buffy could make of his words, but she was fairly sure his chip still sat at the bottom of Dawn's jewellery box. Again, Spike didn't seem to be listening.

"I couldn't stop, you see. I did try. I thought... I thought if I could only stop killing people I could have you. I was such a fucking idiot. I thought I could be good enough. If I stopped, I could wash away a century of killing people and liking it. Thought I could get the girl."

Once the words started, they carried on leaking out in disjointed sentences and a flat monotone nothing like the vampire she knew. And though Buffy was itching to force a straight answer from him, she didn't dare interrupt lest the words dried up altogether.

"Couldn't even do that. All those dead people. Not that it mattered to me. Mattered to them that I killed, I suppose, but I never thought about them. It was only for you, and you knew better all along. But I couldn't come back, and I couldn't stay away... I thought I could fix it. I was such a moron. Why won't you dust me, Buffy?"

"Because you're taking all the fun out of it?" Buffy offered flippantly. But this time she didn't even earn the watery smile for her trouble, Spike carried right on staring at his hands. Deciding he wasn't about to run, Buffy flopped onto the sofa beside him. "And it's nearly Christmas," she added in a kinder tone. "You didn't kill me at Christmas. Season of goodwill and all that."

"No goodwill for vampires. No goodwill in vampires. Just a void."

Truly unnerved by such uncharacteristic bleakness, those empty eyes, Buffy took one of his hands. "Why don't you just tell me what happened?"

"I told you. I thought... if I put it back, I wouldn't want to kill them anymore. Like it was just a switch. I'd heard about this demon in Africa, powerful bugger, could do almost anything. I thought I could be good, like you, and then you'd want me. I didn't understand. And now I do and it's too late, no get out clause with mine you see, it's stuck in here eating me from the inside out. Can't put the spark out.

"And I think I got a faulty one, Slayer, 'cause still you're all I bloody think about. Even as they follow me round and tell me all the things I can never take back. Even now I know what I am. I can't stay away from you."

"Oh my God!"

Though her logical mind was telling her it couldn't be true, Buffy had put the pieces together. The tears and remorse and fractured narrative all adding up to one big impossibility. So impossible that it made Spike saving her life on a whim seem an everyday occurrence.

"You got your soul back."

The doorbell rang just then and, mind reeling, Buffy answered it. Automatically took a box of blood bags from a bemused and slightly out of breath bar-tender, shut the door on Willy as he made an optimistic hint about payment. Hardly aware of what she was doing, Buffy took the box into the kitchen, took out a bag and heated it up. She started when she turned, finding that Spike had followed her into the kitchen.

"I should go, Slayer."

But Buffy forestalled his exit by handing him a steaming mug. The vampire had pulled himself together a little, wiped the tears away at least. Set his face to casual as if he hadn't just been bawling in front of her. "I shouldn't have come here, 's just... a weakness."

Buffy desperately wanted to hit pause. And maybe rewind. Hear his rambling, oblique explanation again until it made a kind of sense that wasn't impossible. But the world had rarely been kind in stopping and allowing her to catch up. "Go where?" she asked eventually.

Spike shrugged, cuddling the warm mug close to his chest as if to ward off questions. "Dunno. Hadn't thought much past you staking me." He grinned slightly and there was real amusement behind the pain. "Still foiling all my best plans, eh Slayer?"

"Your plans suck." Another automatic response, mere words to fend off serious thinking. Even a week ago Buffy might have let him go, simply unable to deal with anything else confusing in her over dramatic life, but in that time the Slayer had made a lot of resolutions. And one of them, the big one, was not playing ostrich with all the things she didn't want to think about. "I'm right though, aren't I? You got your soul back?"

Spike nodded. Back to not looking at her.

"That's really.... very... My God, is that even possible?"

Another shrug. "Turns out. I thought... fuck, I don't know what I was thinking. That it was just an on/off switch. I'd have a soul so I wouldn't want to kill people anymore and I could come back and... you'd fall in love with me. I had no idea... I didn't have one - how was I supposed to understand? I'm such an idiot."

"You needed a soul to work that out?"

But Spike's attention was now firmly on the mug in his hands. The smell of blood rising up was starting to have a visible affect on the vampire, eyes glinting gold as his game face struggled to emerge. Giving in, he downed the blood and handed her back the empty mug.

"I should go," he repeated.

"Wait."

Though she couldn't have said exactly why, Buffy felt a little panicked at the idea of Spike disappearing back into the night. Maybe it was the worry he'd find a more effective ending for himself, maybe just that feeling of events moving too fast for her to keep up with.

"Have some more blood. Give me a little time to process here. That's a huge big surprise to drop on someone and just walk off."

"'M sorry. Never meant to drop anything on you, just thought... you could end it for me. I didn't mean to make myself your problem, love."

"Well it kinda seems to me you are. My problem, that is."

Her problem, her impossibility, standing right there in her kitchen. Twisting his hands together and avoiding her eye, still looking like he wanted to bolt. The very idea that a vampire could up and decide to get a soul was enough to knock the socks off any Slayer. Mortal enemies deciding they didn't want to be evil? That wasn't covered in any watcher's diary Giles had ever told her about. The fact that he'd done it for her was almost too much to take in.

Buffy remembered her shock last Christmas when Spike had declared himself in love with her. She hadn't hardly had time for 'might-have-beens' in the succeeding year, but with hindsight Buffy thought maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise. She knew the vampire well enough to know he wasn't one for half measures. Presumably for Spike, it was a small step from their curious and antagonistic acquaintance to head over heels. There'd been signs that she had dismissed at the time as oddities, or attempts to curry her favour.

And after he'd safely gone, Buffy regretted, slightly, that she'd not been kinder. But she didn't regret sending him away - and if Spike's feelings had factored into her decision at all she would have assumed it was best for him too. He'd gotten over Dru quickly enough, relatively speaking, and compared to a century in a relationship his crush on her was just a moment in time. Far better he was out in the world falling for another vampire than fixating on the girl who would stake him. And if he resented her rejection enough to come back and kill her... Well, Buffy dealt with a lot of vampires trying to kill her, it was something of a speciality.

She'd told herself then she would have no problem staking him if that turned out to be the case. Told herself now, with only a touch of dishonesty, that she would have staked him ten minutes ago but for a lingering obligation and the sense that he was no real threat. Buffy didn't dig too deep and question the sense of relief that she didn't have to, or how easily she accepted his intimation as fact. While what he claimed was clearly impossible, it was also plainly true; Spike was no actor and in no way the vampire that left Sunnydale.

Close up under the bright kitchen lights, Buffy could see just how different he looked. Superficially many things were the same - hair freshly bleached and slicked back, the usual uniform of black - but the attitude that wore the look was entirely gone. The sunken cheeks and ashen skin colour added ten years to his face; the lack of expression added a different kind of age. Buffy realised with a pang she missed the knowing smirks and mobile eyebrows. About this time he should be looking her straight in the eye, puffing his chest out and mocking her inability to kill him. Or, going by last year’s revelations, hitting on her. Either alternative could be dealt with a punch and either better than this current awkwardness.

She'd told him to wait and so he stood there waiting. And there they'd both stand till Dawn returned if she couldn't think of something to say.

"I died," she blurted out suddenly. It was the closest she could come to small-talk under pressure and Spike looked startled. "I got better," she added awkwardly.

"You look good," he replied eventually. "I mean... well. You look well. Not dead."

"There's a demon living in your crypt," she tried again. "I would have slayed him, but... Well he gave Dawn a kitten, and he said he doesn't eat people."

"You met Clem?"

"Clem, that's it. Does he eat people?"

The vampire shook his head with a slight smile. "Not unless they're grinding people up and putting them in Cheetos nowadays."

"He seemed really sociable. I don't think he'd mind if you wanted to move back in."

"Slayer..."

"You still have all that vampire strength, right? You could stay. I mean, you could help. It's not like you have anywhere else to be."

It was crassly put and Buffy clamped her mouth firmly shut again before she made it any worse, but for the first time the vampire looked hopeful. It was a heartbreaking expression. "You got a big bad brewing, love? Need some muscle?"

"Umm... So far? Just evil nerds. But you never know," she added hastily. "And Dawn and I were going to put up the Christmas decorations tonight. You could help. I'm not tall enough to reach the ceiling, you know."

Spike chuckled, and the sound seemed to surprise him into a real laugh. "You birds are all the same. Never heard of a bleeding footstool. You don't need me for nothing."

"We do!" Buffy protested. "The top of the tree is really awkward."

He gave her a look, more reminiscent of the vampire she remembered than anything else Buffy had seen tonight. "Tell me, love, your sister taller'n me yet?"

Buffy smiled ruefully. "Maybe. I've been investing in higher heels, put it that way."

He smiled back, soft and sad, a world away from the old smirk.

"We don't need you," admitted Buffy, as the silence began to stretch. "Not right now. But you could stay anyway. And maybe you need... something. Something to do. There's always plenty of evil to fight in Sunnydale."

He met her eye, wavered. Buffy struggled to find something to add to tip the balance. Couldn't ask him to stay because his earlier words were still echoing around her head. 'Cause still you're all I bloody think about. A scary thing to hear from a virtual stranger. Scary to think he knew so much of her when she'd only just met him, that he loved her already. Buffy didn't want to give him that kind of hope when she didn't know who he was now. But he'd done an incredible thing for her and she couldn't leave him to his own misery.

"Dawn would be pleased to see you. She... missed you. And she'll be so annoyed if she finds out you came to visit and didn't see her. There'd probably be curses."

Spike opened his mouth, Buffy cut off any further argument. "There's bound to be another apocalypse soon. Stay."

"I... thank you, Buffy. I'd like that."







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