It was in the basement where he found her, and for several moments he simply stood atop the stairs, listening to the sounds of her labor. A few grunts of exertion, the unmistakable rattle of chains, a muttered curse and the sound of dead weight dropping onto concrete.

Her voice. “You can come down, Spike,” she offered, resigned. “Guess the surprise is ruined.”

“Not yet, Slayer,” he replied, making his way down the stairs. “Haven’t quite sussed out what you’re doin’.” His boots made purchase on the floor and he took in the scene before him. A metal chain hung tauntingly from the ceiling and near it lay an abandoned cloth-bound mass – a punching bag, he realized. And Buffy, strands of hair beginning to rebel from her ponytail, looking for all the world like she had just finished a workout.

She was radiant to him.

“What’s all this, then?” he asked.

Buffy kicked at the punching bag in annoyance. “You would think that Slayer strength would make this easy,” she grumbled, and bent to pick up the bag again.

Spike quickly moved to pick up the other end. “Sometimes even Slayers need help,” he noted, reaching above his head to hook the bag onto the awaiting chain. “So why the extra hardware? Outgrown the magic shop?”

Buffy tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “It’s for you, actually. I thought…you know, for daytime. Or…whenever.” She drew a small key out of her pocket. “And this…it’s for the training room at the Magic Box. Although I’m pretty sure that if you really wanted to get in there, no one could stop you. You’re kind of sneaky and vampirey like that.” She shifted under his gaze, and her hair rebelled once again. Spike was quick on the uptake, slipping the lock back behind her ear and brushing his fingers against her cheek in the process. Her quick intake of breath shot fire across his skin.

“Thank you, Buffy,” he replied. “‘S wonderful. ‘Course, I think I’d like it a lot better if there were some carefully-chosen pictures taped onto it.”

Buffy’s lips pulled into a smile. “I’m not so sure that vampires photograph, so you’ll probably have to use your imagination. Although now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I could dig up a sheet of paper and some markers.”

Despite himself, Spike snorted in amusement. “You know me too well, pet.”

“Yeah,” she replied, risking their moment by linking her fingers with his. “I do.”

He did not pull away. She marked it as a significant victory when he squeezed her fingers in acknowledgment and pulled her towards the stairs, settling her down next to him, fingers still laced together.

“Buffy,” he started, and bit at his lower lip in an attempt to gather his thoughts. “Think I need to tell you somethin’, love.”

Love. Love. Please, Spike.

She ran the thumb of her trapped hand across the back of his: she would continue to give him nothing but encouragement. “What is it?”

“Somethin’ you need to know. About that night.” His grip on her fingers tightened as his memories were forced back to the battle with Glory, and were he but to look at her, Spike would see that Buffy was back there with him. The stroking of her thumb was unwavering.

“What about it?”

“‘S about when I jumped.” Spike finally looked into her eyes, and lost his nerve. How could he tell the healthy, breathing beauty before him that she was meant to have died?

And her eyes, warm and trusting, waiting patiently for him to reveal his secrets, to allow her to share his burden. He needed to tell her something, and something honest…she could not yet know of her fated death. Not tonight; he simply did not have the strength. His gaze slipped back to the floor, but he did not relinquish the hold he had on her fingers.

“…Drank your blood,” he continued. “Not Bit’s. And Nibblet asked me why when I saw her, an’ I’ve been waitin’ for you to. I figure you have a right to know.”

Buffy’s thumb abandoned its path as she brought her free arm across her body to cradle his hand between both of hers. “Did you want me to ask?”

Spike shook his head. “No,” he replied, “but ‘s somethin’ you need to know, before…before you really try to…help me.” He tapped a finger against his temple.

“I can’t imagine what would be so awful that I would abandon you,” she replied.

You just don’ know, love. You would do better to run.

“Drank your blood,” he said, “because ‘m selfish. Bit’s blood was guaranteed to work, should’ve taken it from her. But…I jus’ once wanted to taste. You. An’ I figured…end of the world. Goin’ to Hell anyway.” He lowered his head in disgust. “‘M such a prat.”

Spike twisted to pull his hand away; Buffy would not allow him. Instead, she awkwardly moved to link her arm through his, recapturing his hand in both of hers, squeezing once again in reassurance and support.

“The way I see it,” she replied, “I have no reason to be angry with you. I freely bled for you the day you came back so you could eat. And I know I would do it again if you asked. So who’s to say that I would not have done it back then? You did what you needed to, and I have no right to blame you.” She paused, then, “And if you need the words…then I forgive you.”

Spike choked a quiet sound she had never heard before, and it touched her to no end. He lifted her hands and pressed his trembling lips against them. “Don’ deserve you,” he murmured.

Buffy pulled herself up enough to lay her benediction against his forehead. “Yes, you do,” she replied quietly. “We both know it.”

They sat together in silence, intertwined on the basement steps. Buffy had no idea how much time had passed, but was finally drawn from their tacit shared reverie when Spike pulled away to look into her eyes.

“You…really do love me,” he offered hesitantly, unwilling to give life to the question. He instead sought the truth in her gaze, her words, her touch. In this, she did not disappoint.

“I do,” she replied. “I really do. And I told you before…I will be here until you’re ready to believe me. I can wait. You did.”

Something in Spike’s frame began to uncoil, and he started to relax. “Know that,” he said, tapping on his chest. “Here. I do. I jus’ have to convince my mind. An’…” He shook his head, taking the coward’s route once again.

Buffy nodded, and let her lips brush lightly against his cheek. “I know you’ll tell me when you’re ready,” she replied. “That applies to everything.”

Of course she knew that something was wrong, he chided himself. Quite possibly she knew that he was keeping something from her. He was by no means being discreet about the thoughts that plagued his mind. He just did not want to tell her. He refused to be the one to hurt her.

“‘S somethin’ else, pet,” he tried, anxious to get his mind out of the territory it enjoyed frequenting…territory he wanted nothing to do with. “That van…the one with the Death Star? I don’ know why, I just know ‘ve seen that van before… ‘s like a picture in my mind, but fuzzy…” Spike’s brow furrowed as he searched for the words to explain himself. “‘S kind of like forest for the trees, yeah?”

“We’ll figure it out,” Buffy replied, her lips quirking into a grin. “We always do. Sometimes it’s right before the big climax, but…we always figure it out in time.” Her words jolted her into remembrance, and she checked her watch, rising to her feet and offering him a hand up.

“I’m having lunch with Willow,” she explained, “and then it’s off to work for Buffy.” He did not miss the apologetic tone in her voice.

Spike allowed her to pull him to his feet, and nodded. “Didn’ mean to keep you.”

Buffy shrugged. “I am far from minding,” she replied, smiling. “Come by the Magic Box when it’s dark…I could use someone to walk me home, what with the mean monsters parading around the streets of Sunnydale.”

Spike’s chuckle carried her up the stairs and out of the front door.

------------------

She should have remembered to wear cover-up.

Buffy had immediately noticed the dark circles under Willow’s eyes, and had begun to interrogate her friend before she’d even had a chance to sit down and pick up the menu. The standard excuse of “not enough sleep” did not seem to fly with the Slayer, and after much hemming and hawing, Willow had finally admitted to having bad dreams.

“They don’t mean anything, you know. You’re the one with the prophetic dreams, Buffy. It’s probably just something from the ultra-nutritious dorm food, you know?”

It had, of course, been a lie. Her dreams were just as vague as they’d ever been, but she didn’t want to let them go. She was certain that some meaning lay tangled in the midst of the obscurity, and Willow was determined to follow it through to the end.

She just didn’t know why.

All she knew, she reflected as she locked the dorm room door behind her, was that something seriously strange was going on with the jar.

Willow dropped to her knees and pulled at the corner of one of the baseboards of her desk. The board came off in her hands to reveal a small makeshift cubbyhole, in which she kept the jar of magical energy she had pulled from Spike’s mind nearly two weeks before.

She ran her fingertip over the jar’s design, noting a few hairline fractures and some surface chipping. She would have to be more careful with it.

Sparing a glance at her watch, Willow tucked her treasure back into its hiding place and crossed over to the bed she shared with Tara, falling on the mattress and closing her eyes. The dreams were taking a toll on her, but she craved the knowledge they surely contained more than anything she could remember. A nap snuck in during the time before the Scooby meeting seemed to be just what she needed.

There was a disjoint, one that had never been present in her dreams. She was not simply the battered vampire lying bleeding before the Slayer: a part of her remained as Willow. And while the majority of the body she inhabited felt resigned, almost as though the abuse was something expected, the consciousness that was still pure Willow blanched in horror at the sight of Buffy beating the no-longer-enemy Spike into a bloody mess against the cold pavement.

“There’s nothing good or clean in you. That’s why you can’t understand!”

She knew nothing of the words, or their context, but they chiseled themselves into her psyche, and she was certain she would not soon forget the harsh tone and the desperate, crazed look in her friend’s eyes.

“You’re dead inside! You can’t feel anything real!”

There was something else said, of that Willow was certain. She was more focused on the pain coursing through her body; she was sure that Spike, in his years of existence, had grown a high threshold for pain, but this was something Willow had never before felt – and never wanted to again.

She did, however, hear the words forced through the lips of the body she somehow currently jointly inhabited.

“You always hurt the one you love, pet.”


Upon awakening, when she realized that her best friend had been the source of Spike’s injuries – something she knew, deep in the core of her being, to be true – Willow ran to the bathroom and promptly vomited until her throat burned and her eyes watered.

And perhaps, if she had thought to listen, she would have heard the whispering emanating from somewhere in her room.

------------------

The Magic Box was filled with the sounds of Anya shuttling around, taking inventory of the store’s stock and muttering to herself, followed by a visibly bored and reluctant Buffy. Tara and Xander were sitting at one of the tables, making idle chit-chat, and Willow was wandering around the upper level, poring through the antique magic books.

Spike entered soon after sundown, and if anyone noticed that Buffy had abandoned her in-store duties to lean against the counter next to Spike rather than sit in one of the empty chairs, they had the good grace to stay quiet.

Anya, having been coerced by Xander to forsake her inventory, now prodded her fiancé between the shoulder blades, cocking her head towards the rest of the Scoobies.

“Go on, Xander,” she said, “tell them why you are interrupting my inventory so they can leave and I can continue to calculate my store’s financial status in peace.”

Xander cleared his throat and stood, bouncing on the balls of his feet with his hands in his pocket – a combination of excitement and nerves.

“I have some information on that van that Spike saw last week,” he began. “It showed up near the construction site I’m working at. I think maybe they were spying…Seriously, that Death Star just screams stealthy professional.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I saw two guys get into the van with lunch or something…one of them was that short guy from high school – can’t really remember his name, but I’m going to dig up the old yearbook and figure it out. The other guy looked a lot like Tucker Wells…remember him? That guy who ruined prom?”

Buffy nodded. “Oh, yeah. Didn’t he have a brother?”

Xander shrugged. “Anyway…that’s what I’ve got. Keep an eye out, guys.”

As Buffy asked Xander to go into more detail about “Shorty,” Spike felt someone tugging at his duster – Willow, he realized as he turned around to a shock of red hair. She beckoned him up to a secluded corner.

“What’s up, Red?” he asked, his eyes raking over her form. She looked considerably worse than the week before – her posture was tight and uncertain, her face exhibiting signs of extreme fatigue. She spoke to him in between glances at Buffy.

“I…um…need to ask you something. A question,” she explained.

Spike’s brow furrowed. “Shoot,” he replied.

“Those bruises you had a few weeks before that fight with Glory...you know, when we found where she was hiding out? Those bruises were from Glory, right? Like, when she kidnapped you? It wasn’t…wasn’t anyone else who beat you up?”

Spike frowned. “‘Course it was Glory,” he replied. “Believe me. I was there.” His eyes narrowed. “What makes you think it was someone else?”

Willow shook her head and chuckled; there was no humor in the sound. “It’s nothing,” she said, waving her hand. “Just a weird dream, I suppose. Yeah. I don’t know why I even thought it…thanks…”

Spike watched as, distracted, Willow walked to one of the bookshelves and began to scan the titles. For his part, the vampire sidled up to the Slayer and leaned close to her ear, murmuring lowly, “Think we need to talk about Red, Slayer.”

Buffy’s wide eyes and somber nod surprised him; clearly, she had noticed something about the distracted witch as well.

Spike made his way out the back of the store and into the alley, lighting a cigarette and inhaling deeply, allowing the smoke to flow slowly from his dead lungs. Halfway through, he began to pace up and down the alley – and that was when he spied the van across the street, suddenly peeling away from the curb and around the corner, headed for locations unknown.

Bugger.

------------------

“Hey, Anya,” Xander said excitedly, leaning on the counter and bouncing on the balls of his feet. Something was clutched in his hand, and his eyes were shining.

“Xander,” she replied, not looking up from her calculator and paperwork, “I informed you several minutes ago that I would tell you when I have finished. It would be helpful if you were to sit quietly and not attempt to distract me.”

“Yeah, Ahn. I was, but then I found this neat thing under the table.” He unclenched his fist and allowed the silver locket to tumble from it, the chain hooked around his wrist. “It looks really cool…what is it?”

Anya pushed herself away from the desk and walked over to her fiancé. When she saw him fumbling with the pendant in an attempt to open it, she rushed over and snatched it from his hands.

“Anya,” he whined, rubbing the red lines the chain had left on his wrist. “That really hurt. What did you do that for?”

“This amulet is dangerous,” she proclaimed, making certain that it was intact. “I don’t even remember ordering it… Well, I’m definitely not selling it.”

Xander frowned. “Come on, Ahn,” he tried, pulling a scrap of paper out of his pocket. “These instructions say that it’s just for temporary singing…that’s fun, right?”

Anya snatched the paper from him as well, wrapping it around the amulet. “Sure, Xander,” she agreed. “It’s all fun and singing until you dance yourself to death.”

Xander’s eyes reflected the fear that six years of monster hunting had not thoroughly managed to erase. “Death-death?”

Anya nodded. “Quite a nasty piece of work, actually,” she replied. “Can’t remember the demon’s name, though. I just remember that it was something really stupid.” Locking the bundle away in the shop’s safe, she grabbed her fiance’s arm and proclaimed, “I would like to go home and enjoy several orgasms now. You also did not fight with Spike tonight, so I have a contractual agreement to fulfill with you.” She switched off the lights and dragged him out of the shop.

Her mission would prove successful: Xander forgot all about the necklace.

------------------

It was not the best of situations she was in when he walked into her room – clad in sushi pajamas, her face red from recent scrubbing, her hair tied into a rushed, sloppy ponytail. Her pajama legs were hiked above her knees, and she was rubbing lotion into her skin.

Spike hesitated at the doorway, taking in the image of her, committing as much to memory as possible – the smell of the lotion, the intricate coloring of her pajamas, the way he imagined her lotioned skin would feel against his. This was the Buffy he loved most: defenses down, taking the time to just be a girl. She had to know that he was staring at her, yet she did not stop her evening ritual; instead, she saw it to completion and rolled her pajama legs down before looking at him expectantly.

“You noticed something was up with Willow, too, didn’t you?” she asked.

Spike nodded and leaned against the doorframe. “Yeah,” he acknowledged. “She looked--”

“Awful, right?” Buffy interrupted. “She looks like she hasn’t slept in days. And she seems really…distracted. That’s really not like her. I mean, yeah, she used to be kind of distracted, but she was always there, you know? She just seems kind of…checked out lately.”

Spike nodded. “She asked me ‘bout the beatin’ I took from Glory,” he said. “Asked me if I was certain that Glory was the one who did it.”

Buffy’s brow furrowed in confusion. “That’s weird,” she replied. “I mean, she was there when we found you. She saw it herself. Well, the aftermath, I mean.”

“What d’you think is wrong?”

Buffy shook her head. “I have no idea. I’ll try to find out…I’m going to talk to Tara tomorrow after work. Maybe she knows something.”

Spike bit at his bottom lip in contemplation; a habit he’d been exhibiting frequently since his return, Buffy realized idly. “Didn’ think of that,” he muttered to himself, and pushed away from the doorframe. “G’night, Slayer.”

Buffy frowned. “You okay, Spike?”

The vampire nodded. “‘m fine,” he replied. “Jus’ feelin’ a bit peckish, and though I’d nip downstairs for some of the butcher’s finest.”

Her earlier words floated through his head, unbidden. I would do it again, if you asked.

Spike bit back his groan by darting his tongue out to lick his lips. “Plus you need to sleep,” he managed, despite the images bouncing around in his mind. Buffy would despise him if she knew what he was thinking…right?

“Okay,” she replied, barely stifling a yawn and burying herself under her sheets and blanket. “Night, Spike.”

It hurt, lying to her. He also wasn’t entirely certain that she wasn’t aware of his deceit, which made him want to fall to his knees and confess all the more – to lay prostrate before her and beg for her forgiveness, plead with her for her favor. She would find out eventually – hell, he would tell her – and she would hate him for lying, but perhaps she could see beyond to his reasoning.

He was starting to believe that she loved him. And he did not want to present her with a broken man. Spike needed to find Spike again; something had been left in the ruins of the tower that night so long ago, and he needed to reclaim it before he could offer himself to her.

As usual, with Spike it was all or nothing. In the wake of an unlife torn asunder at the source, that, at least, had not changed.

“G’night, Slayer,” he said, switching off the lights and closing the door.

------------------

A/N: ...I'm sorry! I'm out of the woodwork now, and back to working on this story.

Please be careful with my muse...she's very fragile at the moment. Clearly, as this chapter took me nearly a year.

Again, I'm so sorry. :-/


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