She could still recall the feeling of bitter tears drying on hardened cheeks as she thrust the sword through Angel’s body. Could still remember the ache of a tortured heart abandoned one too many times. Could easily summon the grief felt for a mother too early dead and buried.

But to be denied by the man who was supposed to love her, Buffy had never felt such despair.

Spike patted down the pockets of his duster, searching for the familiar weight of his cigarettes with no real hope of finding any – it had apparently been a while, from what he could gather, but he couldn’t remember having any in the duster before going into battle – and his brow furrowed in confusion when he pulled out an unopened pack and a cheap lighter. His eyes not leaving the form of the stunned slayer standing before him, he smacked the pack of cigarettes against the heel of his hand a few times before pulling off the cellophane wrapper and tossing it carelessly onto the ground, drawing out a cigarette from the middle and lighting it.

It was when he noisily blew out the smoke from his first puff that she seemed to come back to herself, and eyes hazed over with shock filled instead with confusion and hurt.

“I thought…I thought you would be happy,” she said quietly. Then, louder, almost defiantly, “I thought you loved me.”

Spike tucked the lighter and cigarettes back into his pocket before inhaling another cloud of smoke and sighing it out. “I do love you, Buffy,” he replied. “That hasn’t changed. Not even durin’ my stint of bein’ actually dead instead of jus’ undead.”

Buffy watched him silently as he finished half of the cigarette before finally venturing, “Then why don’t you think I love you?”

Spike did not respond, choosing instead to take another long, slow drag off of his cigarette before dropping the rest to the ground and stubbing out the ember with the toe of his boot and blowing the smoke into the air above his head.

He didn’t want to answer her. Didn’t want to subject himself to that kind of vulnerability, didn’t want to give her the power to crush him thoroughly. But then, he reminded himself wryly, that had already happened when he’d fallen in love with her, and when he’d let her know it. And, ironically, part of the reason was because he didn’t want to hurt her. Which, if her posture and the catch in her voice was any indication, he was already doing a pretty piss-poor job of avoiding. So he spoke.

“I want to,” he finally replied, his eyes fixated on the few wisps of smoke creeping from the cigarette butt on the pavement. “God, Buffy, you have no idea how much. But I’ve been through this before, with Dru, and I don’t…want it to happen again.” He shifted in place, gaze still locked on the cigarette butt. “With Dru, it was…I thought I loved her. An’ I think I did, in the very beginnin’. But after a while I think it was jus’ gratitude for sirin’ me, for givin’ me more of a life while dead than I ever had alive.” The side of his mouth drew into a self-deprecating smirk. “An’ I know she never really loved me to begin with,” he added, as more of an aside, “an’ I jus’ don’t want to go through that again.”

Buffy took a hesitant step towards him. “I don’t understand,” she replied, the words tightening in her throat. “You think I’m like Drusilla?” Another step. “Spike, I…do you think I’m just going to use you? I’m not like that.”

He finally looked up at her, and for the span of a heartbeat Buffy considered it to be a small victory. When she saw nothing but resignation in his eyes, she quickly changed her opinion, wishing he’d never looked up at all.

“Not sayin’ that, pet,” he responded. “Sayin’ you’re like me. Confusin’ gratitude with love. An’ I can’t…I can’t be that way. Not with you, Buffy…I can’t pretend you love me when you don’t, an’ I can’t let you think you love me when you don’t. I jus’…I can’t.”

This was a Spike she had never seen. For all of his posturing, for all of his cocky smirks and pet names and well-timed quips, she had never seen him like this. Even after Glory had nearly killed him, and he’d been vulnerable and recuperating in his crypt, he’d always been self-assured. That whatever he was doing, he was within his self-given right to do so, convinced so utterly that his way was the best – and only – way to go. This Spike – who presented himself as something other than invulnerable when it was clear that he was anything but – was a Spike she did not know, and a Spike she wasn’t certain how to handle, to approach.

Not entirely certain what she was going to say, but knowing she had to say something, anything, Buffy opened her mouth in an effort to refute his claims when she was stopped by the sound of approaching footfalls and the sight of brilliant red flashing in the streetlamp down the block. She wasn’t certain if Willow had the worst timing in the world or the most impeccable.

“Spike,” she managed, “this conversation isn’t over. We’re not done here.” It wasn’t a threat, simply a statement of fact. She would try again, using the same words, hoping that maybe the next time they would take. Reaching her hand out to squeeze his own in reassurance, she forced herself to stop just as her touch ghosted his. Now was not the time for idle touches, and not only because they had a spell to perform.

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As she idly fluttered about the training room of the Magic Box, pushing gym mats and sparring dummies against the wall, Willow spent the majority of her mental resources wishing she was somewhere else. Namely, out of the line of fire.

When she’d approached Buffy and the recently-back-to-unlife Spike, she’d known immediately that she’d walked into something awkward. Buffy’s eyes had been – and were still – a disconcerting mixture of anger, disappointment and hurt. Spike had been perhaps more unnerving – he was quieter than she’d ever known him to be. Willow had arrived, smiled, stammered awkwardly that she was glad he’d returned, and hugged him, and through all of it he hadn’t said a word. Not one; not even a grunt of acknowledgement.

The situation did not change once they’d entered the Magic Box and she explained the spell she was going to use. Matters had not been helped much by the fact that Willow continued to channel her awkward and stammering high-school self.

“At first,” she said, “I thought I’d use the same spell I used on Buffy, a-and kind of slip inside your mind, you know?” Her eyes darted between the slayer and vampire, both of whom were unresponsive. “But then I realized that…you know, you’re all here. Buffy was kind of all with the not-being-there mentally. So I’m going to start off with a kind of scan,” she continued.

Buffy was the first of two to exhibit any kind of responsiveness – Willow would have put her money on Spike – as she asked, “You mean, you’re going to read his aura? Because I thought that was kind of Tara’s thing.”

Willow shook her head as she crouched and dropped to her knees, one hand bracing herself as she pulled a large piece of chalk from the bag at her side and began to draw an elaborate pentagram on the floor.

“Not exactly like that,” she replied as she drew. “I-I mean, yeah, it’s kind of like that, but more of a…magical x-ray,” she tried, scrunching up her nose as she tried to think of a proper analogy. “If there’s something wrong, the spell will kind of point it out to me.” Willow paused, shrugged, and nodded emphatically. “Like an x-ray.” Her brow furrowed as she tucked the chalk back into her bag. “Or, I guess it’s more like an MRI,” she mused.

Buffy shook her head. “Whatever it is. So, how does this work, exactly?”

Willow pushed herself to her feet and brushed the chalk powder from her hands. “It’s really simple. Basically, he just stands there and…well, I’ll look kind of weird, but I just stare at him, and the spell works itself.” She paused, and added, “I’d be chanting the spell in my head, you know.”

Buffy lifted her chin towards the pentagram that covered the majority of the uncovered space on the training room floor. “What’s this for?” she asked. It wasn’t as though she didn’t trust her friend; Buffy was simply taking no chances with Spike. Not after he’d come back. Not after she told him she loved him.

Willow used the tip of her shoe to toe the small canvas bag to the side in an attempt to cover her nervousness. “It’s…it’s just in case,” she replied.

The corners of Buffy’s mouth pulled into a small frown. “‘Just in case’?” she asked. “Wills, is this spell dangerous?”

Willow offered her palms in supplication, fervently denying Buffy’s claim before adding, “It’s just…well…” She paused, and her eyes darted to the still-unresponsive vampire, who seemed to be staring directly through the chalk pentagram on the floor. “We don’t know why he’s back, right?” At Buffy’s nod, she continued, “If it’s something really bad, like apocalypse-y, then the symbols will help. Think of it as like…” She sought another analogy. “Um…something hospital-y.”

Buffy shook her head again. “I get it, Willow,” she replied. Then, habitually lowering her voice despite knowing that Spike’s vampire hearing would pick up every word, she added, “I just don’t want anything bad to happen, you know?”

Willow smiled – albeit a bit uneasily – at her friend. “I know,” she responded. “Don’t worry. This spell’s a piece of cake compared to others I’ve done.” Her eyes brightened. “Like, there was this one I tried about a month ago--”

“Great, Willow,” Buffy interrupted. “You can tell me about it later. Right now…?”

“Oh!” the witch exclaimed, a bit flustered. “Right.” She walked over to Spike, who was still contemplating forces unknown lying beyond the chalk pentagram, and asked, “Are you ready?”

He jerked into awareness, his eyes darting between her and Buffy and back again, before finally nodding. “Ready as I’ll ever be, Red.” He spread his arms – in confusion, perhaps, or possibly surrender – and asked, “What do you need me to do?”

Willow’s lips – which had quirked into a small smile when he’d called her “Red” again – quickly pulled into a moue of concentration as her eyes scanned the training room. Finally settling on something, she pointed and answered, “I need you to stand against that wall.”

While in retrospect the diagnostic scan had probably taken no longer than two or three minutes, they were the longest minutes of Buffy’s life – and, if pressed, Spike would have answered the same. While he had always enjoyed being the center of attention, especially where women were concerned, there was something incredibly disconcerting about standing motionless against a cold wall while a red-haired witch ran critical and too-focused eyes over his body.

However, the relief he felt when Willow looked up into his eyes was short-lived as he saw the panic in her wide-eyed gaze before she took a hesitant step back and turned on her heel to march into the main area of the Magic Box.

Sparing a quick glance at Spike, Buffy jogged after her friend, trailing at the witch’s heels as she gathered various candles and herbs from the shelves, shoving them into the slayer’s arms and murmuring to herself.

“Birch bark,” Willow said absently, and dropped a small bundle into Buffy’s arms. “And maybe belladonna could help…and it can’t be possible, right?” A pause, and Willow moved to another shelf. “Lavender, surely…”

Buffy coughed in attempt to get her friend’s attention; it did not work. Worried, and still clutching onto the assortment of items in her arms as though Spike’s very existence depended on it – and with the way Willow was acting, who was to say that it didn’t? – she opened her mouth to demand what Willow’s spell had found.

Spike beat her to it. Storming out of the training room and towards the witch, seemingly every bit the Spike he’d been before he’d jumped from the tower, Spike grabbed Willow roughly by the shoulders and spun her to face him.

“Tell me what you saw, Red,” he demanded, and his voice was a low growl, covering his inherent worry.

Willow’s lips tugged into a hesitant smile, then a confused pout, and back again, as though she wasn’t entirely certain what the correct emotion would be in a situation such as Spike’s.

“Well,” she responded, swallowing against her suddenly-dry throat, “for starters, you came back with a soul.”

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A/N: Yep. Some of you already guessed it. But did this come as a surprise to anyone? Sorry for the delay in posting, but I was working on a fluffy one-shot called “Of Love, Balloons, and Birthday Cake” (which is up on the archive, if you haven’t read it, yet!) and am actually outlining another one-shot at the moment.

I’m actually kind of disappointed with this chapter, and can only promise (and hope) that the next one will be better.

Thank you to all of my wonderful readers. I do love your reviews, and they really do inspire the muse, so if you are so inclined I do hope you leave one!




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