The dryer dinged as it turned off, waking Spike. Buffy’s clothes were dry. He got up off the cot and opened the dryer, pulled out the still warm cloth. There was a time – it felt like a long time ago, but it wasn’t really – when Spike would have allowed himself to be taken away by the concept of Buffy’s underthings; when burying his face in her warm laundry would have been akin to embracing her. He was long past such things, now. He’d gotten past them long before Buffy had died, actually, but now that there was... more to him... the clothes were just clothes. He was rather embarrassed that they had ever seemed like anything else.
Spike folded them absently. He was living rent free in Buffy’s basement, safe from the First, safe from the madness, safe, he told himself, from himself. A few quiet chores were the least he could do. He folded Buffy’s pajamas and sweat pants and sports bras, and piled them quietly in a basket, to carry them upstairs.
The house was full of potential slayers, all of them free to come and go at will, while Spike was pretty much trapped in the house from sunrise to sundown, but it didn’t matter much to him. The potential slayers aside, the house was comfortable. It smelled of Buffy, and Buffy’s scent calmed him. Kept him centered. He liked that.
He liked being there. He liked being around Buffy. He liked how she would hum to herself as she tried on clothes in the morning. Sometimes she threw stuff on all anyhow, ready to slay, to sleep, to hang about. But then she’d get nervous about something – a fight to prepare for, an argument with Dawn, a troubled day at work – and she’d spend twenty to fifty minutes trying things on and taking things off again, sometimes hanging them up neatly when she was finished, other times just tossing them in the corner. He wasn’t sitting and watching this performance (as much as he would have liked to) but he could hear it through her door.
He took up the basket of laundry and climbed into the kitchen, where Andrew was rummaging through the fridge. “Jeeze,” he muttered. “Do they eat anything but pizza around here?”
Buffy, Spike knew, was not a cook. Apart from her occasional desperate attempt at a holiday meal, of course. Spike still sometimes jonesed for the taste of her turkey gravy, a side-effect from that being the first thing he’d tasted when he first got off human blood. So many years ago, now. When he had been suffering withdrawal just recently he’d been tempted to ask her to make him some. He’d been too ashamed and tormented to dare. It was difficult bringing up the past with Buffy. Even the good moments had left scars. But holiday meals were mostly the only times she had the patience for the kitchen.
That was one of the things he loved about her. Everyone claimed he lacked patience – and he could be pretty impulsive, he knew that. But Buffy would charge through a brick wall if she thought it would save her time. Given a choice between scrambled eggs or fried, she made fried, because scrambling them took too much time. She’d watch garbage on the television rather than rummage through the videos looking for something decent. And as for skipping foreplay... he’d had to teach her foreplay, and usually it was post-play, as they’d had to get through the initial passion before she could begin to have the patience for it.
Not that they were doing anything of the kind at the moment. He headed up the stairs with the laundry basket, with a bit of a wistful thought in that direction. Still... somehow, it didn’t matter so much. Not like it had.
Before he’d gotten his soul, the fact that he couldn’t have her in his arms when he wanted her had been driving him barmy. Thinking of her – and he was always thinking of her – had been painful. Seeing her had been agony. Not being able to touch her... he’d felt like he was being disemboweled. It had been hard enough loving her and wanting her before he’d known what he was missing. But once she’d pulled away, he had felt so dead and so empty. She had filled him in places he hadn’t even known were vacant and when she left, she’d left him hollow. That was why... it had happened. He was half mad even before he’d gotten the soul. She’d taken herself and her soul away from him, and left a void he couldn’t fill without her. He had been desperate to feel whole again.
The bathroom was still difficult for him to enter. Which was annoying, because it was the only one in the house, and he had to shower as often as anyone else. City dirt had no prejudice – it would stick to a vampire as much as a human. He’d actually taken to washing himself at the basement sink, rather than relive what had happened by that bathtub.
Which was a shame. Because part of him loved that bathroom. He loved the way it smelled like rose petals after she’d been in it, the residue of her favorite soap rising from the tub. He loved to think about her putting on her make-up, the gentle touch of the brushes and sponges as they caressed her face – as he wished his own fingers could do. He’d used to put on Dru’s make-up for her, acting as her missing reflection. He knew how intimate it could be. He enjoyed the sound – god, he was such a love-sodden fool – the sound of Buffy brushing her teeth. It made him think about her naughty little teeth, and the way they could bite down so hard, and the beautiful symmetrical marks they made...
He went past the bathroom, where Buffy and Anya seemed to be working on a stain on one of Buffy’s shirts, and he set the laundry basket on Buffy’s bed. He could have just left it there, but that would be more work for Buffy – even if it was only a little – so he put her clothes away, hanging up shirts and dresses and sliding things into drawers. He knew where everything was kept. He was a little ashamed of how – he’d rummaged through everything in Buffy’s room when he’d first realized he was in love with her. When he thought back on that now, he was appalled. No, it wasn’t murder, but how the hell had he ever thought that was okay? A conscience was a terrible thing – it bothered him over the slightest stupid infractions.
Still... it was cute how she didn’t have her underthings in a single drawer. She kept her sexy matching sets in one drawer, and the comfy random stuff in another, next to her tampons – because that was when she used her comfy stuff. She also had two drawers for night things, with much the same arrangement. He filed her pajamas away, making judgements on which ones should go where. The satin long sleeved ones he hesitated over. They covered her completely, were perfectly modest, but the sensual fabric finally tipped them over into the sexy drawer. He would have found them sexy, anyway.
And he loved how many bloody shoes she had. Most them he had never seen her wear, but they were her damn shoes, and they were going in her closet, thank you very much. He’d realized, with subtle questions and random statements, that most of those shoes had been bought for her by her father, the first year after she’d moved to Sunnydale. She never saw her father. She resented his absence in her life. But she kept those damn shoes, even though she almost never wore them – he sometimes wondered if they even fit her anymore. She’d been sixteen when they were bought for her, after all.
Spike hung up a couple of her skirts. One was ripped. The other had a blood stain on the hem. Her clothes often couldn’t survive more than a single season within the wardrobe of a slayer, but she still bought the lacy, satiny, flowing and fashionable things, rather than stick with the solid utilitarian garb which Giles had said most slayers preferred. Buffy had said once that any item of clothing which could not survive her lifestyle did not deserve to be part of her wardrobe. But it was survival of the fittest, not artificial selection. She wore what she wanted, and if it didn’t survive, it didn’t survive. He touched the blood stain fondly, chuckling. It was her job to cull her wardrobe when any of it failed her. He wondered how long these two items would survive.
He loved it here. He loved being part of her household, even lurking in the basement like the childhood nightmare he was. It felt right to him. It was almost the first time he’d felt as if he belonged anywhere. He’d been a vampire. He’d had lairs, or nests, or crypts. But this was different. This wasn’t just where he was staying. This was... home.
He knew he was only dreaming, but he couldn’t help it. He wasn’t Buffy’s. She wasn’t his. They did not belong to each other. But he’d had her body, her moans, her screams. He’d had her violence and her anger. Now he had her basic day-to-day domestic existence, and he swallowed each day like it was blood. He would have preferred the freedom to catch her from behind as she was doing dishes, lay kisses on her throat. He would have preferred to sit comfortably beside her as she watched TV, maybe rubbing her shoulders if they were sore. He would have given his teeth to curl up beside her at night, just holding her, caressing her hair and listening to her breathe. But as it was, this was still better than he’d ever dared to dream. Buffy, in the same house. Buffy, just in arms reach. Buffy, right there, where he could hear her, smell her, know she was safe. Safe at home. With him.
“Oh! Spike!” It was Dawn. She’d come into Buffy’s room with a handful of stakes. “What are you doing here?”
“Laundry’s done,” he said. He set the last couple of sweaters on hangers.
“Oh, good,” Dawn said. “She was looking for a clean shirt. She’s got a date tonight.”
Spike wished Dawn had just put one of those stakes through his heart. It was wrong of him, he knew. He didn’t need Buffy the way he had, back when he had no soul. She wasn’t feeding him, he wasn’t hollow without her. And he wouldn’t let himself want her, not in any physical way. She didn’t deserve that, and it was dangerous. So he didn’t need her. He wouldn’t want her. But he couldn’t possibly stop loving her. Hell, he loved her more than ever. The pain didn’t spur him into madness but in some ways it was deeper, and his shame was palpable. And she had a date tonight. With someone else.
He swallowed. “Good,” he told Dawn. “She should get out more.”
“Yeah. She should,” Dawn said pointedly. Spike stared at her, an eyebrow raised, and Dawn blushed. She stuffed Buffy’s stakes all anyhow in their drawer. “You should let her... I mean, you shouldn’t...”
“I don’t,” Spike said. He hung up the last sweater. “She doesn’t deserve that.”
Dawn looked awkward. “Well, good,” she said. “I’m glad you realize that.”
He smiled ruefully. “I realized that a long time ago.”
Dawn frowned, and then nodded. “Well. Good,” she said again. She looked confused as she left, and a little bitter. Spike often wondered how much she knew, and how much she understood, about what had happened between him and Buffy. It was so much bigger than what had happened in the bathroom, after all. Dawn was too young to understand most of it. Even if he had dared explain, which he could never do. The parts that reflected badly on him were too painful. The parts that reflected badly on Buffy, he wouldn’t reveal to Dawn – for both Dawn and Buffy’s sakes. The whole thing was too complex for Dawn to understand. Hell, both he and Buffy were still trying to understand it, and they were the ones who had done it. The past... they couldn’t escape it.
He couldn’t keep pretending they could.
He took in a deep breath. Buffy’s room, Buffy’s scent... he tried to imagine what it would be like to catch someone else’s scent in her bed. The thought was deeply painful, but there was no rage, as there would have been before the soul. Just a profound sorrow, and a sense of loss.
Loss of what? They weren’t together. He’d already lost that, and lost all right to it. But... Buffy supported him. Kept him steady. Made him feel as if he was worth something. As if he could handle the blood-drenched horrifying existence he had been condemned to. He realized he was wrong. He did still need her. That desperate feeling of “need” was gone; the fact of it was still there.
And what if he was just getting in her way? He might have needed her... she couldn’t possibly need him. Not really. He had absolute faith in her, and she needed no one. He should go. He should learn to exist without her. He had no idea how, but it wasn’t fair to need her like that. And if he left, she could be free. She could date and love and live. He’d always thought Angel was an ass for just up and abandoning her. But she’d loved Angel. She didn’t... she never could... love him.
Spike realized he was digging his nails into his other hand, and made himself stop. He hadn’t drawn blood, but there were perfect half-moons of marks in his skin. He could do it. He could make himself leave. He could say good bye to her humming in the morning, and the sound of her brushing her teeth, and the scent of her rose-petal soap. He could leave behind her silk pajamas and her untouched shoes and her slayer-ravaged wardrobe. He could leave, go far away, go somewhere where the First couldn’t find him, and resign himself to never again tasting Buffy’s turkey gravy.
You know what’s right, Spike. Don’t let your vision be clouded by your own desires. You should go. You should let her go.
He swallowed. He’d make the offer. Not like Angel or Giles, just up and walking away with a unilateral decision, but he needed to give her the option. Her choice. If it was easier for her with him gone...
But still, he’d miss this. He would always miss this. This place, this time, this precious gift of living beside her, day to day, her breath, her laugh, her laundry, her morning grumbles. He’d go, if she wanted him to. He’d learn how to live without her. Even though he didn’t want to leave.