“Oh, come on, Buffy! I know I’m in danger, but what’s the point of living if you don’t get to do it?” Dawn had been pleading for the last ten minutes.
Buffy glared at her.
“It’s educational. It’s been arranged by the school.”
“It’s bowling,” Buffy said.
“And that requires math,” Dawn said, “physics, geometry. Please?”
“And with Glory starting the torture game, we have new rules. You go nowhere alone. And I have to go to the funeral home,” Buffy said. “Two victims, unexplained throat trauma, it’s textbook. If I don’t stake them tonight, they’ll ravage their families at the viewing tomorrow.”
“Come on, Buffy!”
“Xander’s mom has finally guilt-tripped him into some family dinner with Anya, and Giles has his guitar thing. You can stay in the dorm and study with Willow.”
“Couldn’t she go?”
“She and Tara have a test to study for.”
“Well, what about Spike?” Dawn asked.
“You said he didn’t give me up to Glory. That means he’s safe, right? And he does have that whole super-powers thing, just like you do.”
Buffy sighed. “Fine,” she said, too tired to argue anymore. She supposed she should have guessed that Dawn would be right back on her weird Spike fixation the moment it seemed safe. “Fine. I’ll swing by his crypt while you’re at school, see if he’s willing to spend the evening at the bowling alley.”
“Really? Woo!” She hugged Buffy tight.
“But you’re staying with Willow if he’s still too injured, or he doesn’t want to,” Buffy said. “And be warned, he might not. Spike. Teenagers. Bowling. These sound like un-mixy things to me.”
“He’ll do it,” Dawn said. “I know he will.”
“He’ll do it for you.”
Buffy did not like how likely true that statement was.
“You’re in luck,” Buffy said when Dawn got home. “He said he’ll do it. I’ll drop you off at seven, hit the funeral home, and be back to supervise before the game is over.”
She didn’t say that the minute and a half she had spent in Spike’s crypt asking him had been awkward in the extreme. Spike hadn’t been his usual brusque and sardonic self. He didn’t seem to know what to say to her through his bruises. And Buffy had felt awkward herself, asking for a favor when it wasn’t a life and death situation. She also hadn’t even threatened to hit him in the face – that was a rare switch.
The rules had changed. She wasn’t allowed to hate him anymore, and she didn’t know what to do with that. She’d been sure to repeat, at least three times, that the whole thing was Dawn’s idea. His response to, “Will you do it?” had been a simple, “Yeah,” and Buffy had been the one to arrange all the details after that. She’d left without even remembering to say thank you. She felt a little bad about that.
Dawn was thrilled. It turned out one of her girlfriends had a crush on one of the other guys in the bowling game, and Dawn had promised to be there for emotional support. Buffy smiled and nodded and ignored the ninth-grade dramatics, and dropped Dawn off at the bowling alley just after sunset. Spike waved at her through the glass doors before she headed off to slay.
It took her longer to get back than she’d thought it would. One of the newborn vamps had been watching too much Japanese animation, and thought climbing the walls was a good plan, so Buffy had spent a lot of time just sitting there and waiting for him to come down. She could have chased him up there, but it seemed like a waste of energy. Still, she’d gotten her nails filed.
When she got back to the bowling alley, Dawn was a lot more drawn and subdued than she’d expected. Spike wasn’t hanging with the teenagers. He was keeping an eye on them as he sat at a table by the shoes, nursing something fizzy, which Buffy suspected he had spiked with his own flask. Dawn kept throwing him awkward looks before her friends drew her attention back to them.
“Everything okay?” Buffy asked Spike.
“No angry gods or cowled demon attacks,” Spike said. “But apparently a great and epic tragedy has arisen, as someone called Troy is flirting with someone called Beth as opposed to someone called Janice.”
“Oh. So that’s the source of the depressing atmosphere over there.”
“Nah,” Spike said. “Dawn got a little spooked when she saw my face.”
Buffy didn’t blame her. Spike’s bruises had deepened, and his face was the color of an eggplant, misshapen and swollen, his sharp cheekbones hidden and unrecognizable. “I don’t think she realized how dangerous Glory could be,” Buffy said.
“Or how bleedin’ invulnerable I actually wasn’t,” Spike said. He snapped his fingers and someone at the counter nodded. A moment later, the concessions vendor appeared with a second cup of fizzy stuff, and placed it before Buffy.
“What’s this?” Buffy said with annoyance.
“It’s a coke. Relax,” Spike said.
“Spike. Just because I gave you a-a thank you...”
“Kiss,” Spike supplied.
“Peck,” Buffy said. “That doesn’t mean we’re about to ride off into the sunset–”
“And just because I buy a lovely lady a drink doesn’t mean I expect that to earn my way into her pants, pet,” Spike said. “If I was going to treat you as a sodding prostitute, I wouldn’t low ball you like that.”
Buffy’s fist clenched. He grinned as broad as his bruises would allow, as it was clear she was trying not to hit him.
“You’re looking quite fetching this evening,” he continued.
“Spike,” Buffy began.
“Buffy,” he said, in the same tone. His eyes flickered down her form. “I’m serious. You’re quite lovely.”
“Yeah, all decked out for slaying duty,” Buffy said.
“As I said.”
“Spike. Stop it.”
“I can’t pay you a compliment?” Spike said. “Bloody hell, love. I thought the rules of courtship were strict when I was still human.”
Buffy was annoyed now. “There is no courtship,” Buffy said. “This is... toleration.”
“On your part, sure. I don’t expect to get anywhere. I can still enjoy myself.”
“If you weren’t still tenderized Glory meat, you’d be enjoying my fist in your face.”
“So... bonus,” Spike said. “Hey, love, you’re not actively giving me the if looks could slay eyeball, and I don’t have to hide how I feel anymore. I’m already over the bloody moon.”
“You’re easily pleased.”
“I thought I’d made that abundantly clear, as well,” Spike said. His eyes were fond as he gazed at her. “I could spend the next three hours contentedly watching you scowl. Let alone watching you watch your sister.” He smiled a little. “Your eyes spark all protective-like.”
“I don’t like how you’re looking at me.”
“Now I’m not allowed to look at you?” Spike said. He sighed. “All right. So what are the sodding rules, then?”
“Rules? What are you talking about?”
“Well, I haven’t courted a human being since I was one. Not really. And I must confess, Miss Summers, I wasn’t particularly skilled at it even then.” His accent had changed slightly, though there was a touch of sarcasm in it, as well.
“Shut up.” She was irritated that it sounded more amused than annoyed.
“But at least as I was then, I knew the rules of propriety. I’d have come to sit in your parlor every Sunday afternoon,” he said, “after earning your card and addressing the circumstances with your father at great length. I’d have walked you home from church. If I was extremely forward, I’d have occasionally taken your arm if we passed a rough spot in the road.”
“Stop it,” Buffy said, more firmly this time. “You are not courting me.”
“I can do what I bloody well like,” Spike said, his accent falling back to normal. “You don’t have to return in kind. I could go with the expected hook-up behavior from the seventies. Get you properly drunk, offer you a quaalude and find a nice wall.”
“You are disgusting,” Buffy said, still sounding amused.
“Hey, those were the people. I was just eating them.”
“And I say again.”
“Well, you didn’t think much of the proper come-on from a vampire.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Chaining you up and declaring my love. It would have worked great on another vamp.”
“How the hell is that considered proper?”
“Demon,” Spike said. “Trust me, there isn’t a vampire bird in the world that wouldn’t have melted at that.”
Spike blinked at her. “Show of strength, honest devotion, laying my kill at your feet. Sacrificing my old lover for you. Believe me. As a vampire, we’re talking height of romance, here.”
“And as a person, I tell you, that’s sick.”
“At least I wasn’t stalking you, killing your friend’s fish, and leaving corpses in your watcher’s bed.”
“No, you were just lurking outside my home, creeping through my basement, and stealing my sweaters.” Buffy looked back at Dawn, who was staring at Spike’s bruises again. Dawn looked away.
“Touché, slayer,” Spike said softly. “I don’t pretend for one second I know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to court, only how to hunt. I can handle a one night seduction, but only if I’m planning to eat someone. Anything real, and I’m completely lost. Dru always liked to be tortured.” He looked down. “I’d have wooed you with more grace, if I knew how.”
“I don’t want you wooing me, Spike.”
“I know that,” he said.
“So stop it.”
“I have,” he said. “I’ve taken the role now of sincere admirer.”
Buffy rolled her eyes.
“So how would you like me to behave, pet?”
“I’d like you to get the hell over it.”
“So would I,” Spike said. “Believe me. But lacking that.... what would be the proper behavior, then? When the most amazing and... seductive woman on the planet comes and sits at the table... what am I meant to do?”
“Keep your mouth shut,” Buffy said. “Or better yet, go home.”
“That’s gratitude,” Spike said. “I’ve been enduring teenage wasteland over there all evening, at your beck and call.”
Buffy sighed. “Thanks,” she said. She realized she was still treating him as if the whole thing with Glory had never happened. And that... wasn’t really fair. Demanding her affection as payment after that would have been unfair as well, but he wasn’t. He was only being honest. She took hold of the straw and took a sip of his peace offering. The vendor had delivered it, so Spike couldn’t easily have spiked it with anything. No doubt that was why he’d arranged it that way. She supposed that was chivalrous, in its way – not testing her trust. In any case, it wasn’t a prenuptial. It was just a coke.
She glanced up to find his eyes fixed on her mouth over the straw. He looked like he was salivating, and it bothered her. He blinked a few times, and then drew his eyes back up to hers. “So I’m not allowed to tell you how lovely you are,” Spike said then, his voice soft. “That’s going to limit my conversation quite a bit, as it’s about the only thing I can think about.”
“Which is why,” Buffy said, “it’s not love, it’s just physical, and you should get the hell over it.”
“That’s not all there is to it, though that’s fair enough. It just happens to be the most distracting at the moment.” His eyes played over her as if they had their own fingers to caress her. “So I can’t admire your throat... or the way that tendril of hair has escaped your pony tail, caressing it like a kiss...”
Buffy grabbed at her hair and tried to stuff the errant tendril back in, and Spike’s grin broadened. “Or how the hot blood rushes into your cheeks when you blush... or how your eyes spark when you start to get annoyed... or that exasperated eye roll you get when you realize you have no bloody chance of shutting me the hell up.”
Buffy managed not to hang her head in flattered embarrassment, as she would have if, say, Riley had been saying any or all of those things to her. She bit her tongue instead, and couldn’t help but feel that her scowl was almost a smirk. She was not flattered. No. Not at all. Nope. Never. Not in the least.
“You are a hundred kinds of beautiful, Buffy,” Spike continued. “If I can spend even ten minutes in your presence... it’s a ray of sunlight in my own dark world.”
“How does that follow that you think that’s a good thing, vampire?” Buffy asked.
“Beautiful... painful... dangerous.... Seems like a proper analogy to me, slayer.”
“So why don’t you fall in love with a venomous snake?”
“Who says I didn’t?” Spike said, leaning back in his chair.
Buffy shook her head and took another sip of her drink.
“I’m only enjoying your company, Buffy. I don’t expect you to suddenly swoon in my arms and declare the devotion in your heart.”
“No. Because I’m nothing like your dumb robot.”
“No,” Spike said seriously. “You’re not. I was already getting bored with it.”
Buffy looked at him. “Bored with it?”
“Which just goes to show,” Buffy said, pretending she was not unexpectedly hurt. It was her... or it was supposed to be her. How could he get bored with her so quickly? “What you’re feeling can’t possibly be real.”
“She wasn’t,” Spike said. “You said as much yourself. I’m not in love with wires and plasticine, pet, even if it did have your face. I’m in love with you.”
“Stop feeling it, or stop saying it?” Spike asked. “Because one is possible. The other isn’t.”
“Spike. You are really–”
“Pushing it?” Spike said. “This is the first time you’ve really spoken to me...” He sighed and looked down. “In a long time,” he finished. He leaned forward. “I’m not asking you for anything, love. No reciprocation, no affection, nothing. But I spent months swallowing how I felt about you, until I choked on it.” His voice had deepened, grown intimate and seductive. “The words were burning in me, dragging cruel talons through my dreams, making me wake in an agony of longing close to terror.”
“Touch me, and I’ll kill you,” Buffy said, getting nervous now.
“I know it,” Spike said. “I’ve always known it. And truth to tell, if that’s how you felt about it, I wouldn’t want to, anyway.”
“Honestly,” Spike said. “That would hurt you, and I don’t want to do that. Well. Much.” He flicked his eyebrow. “I love you, I don’t just want you.”
“You can’t love,” Buffy said. “You don’t have a soul.”
“You really believe that,” Spike said. “Why? Because of Angel?”
Buffy rolled her eyes again. “You’re ju–”
“I’m nothing like him,” Spike continued.
“Just because when he lost his soul he forgot how to love doesn’t mean I can’t.”
“Would you leave him out of this?”
Spike regarded her for a long moment before he leaned back in his chair again. “All right,” he said. “Let’s just talk about us, then.”
“There is no us.”
Spike grinned. “There was an us when it was just us wanting to kill each other. And there’s more to us than that.”
“Maybe for you,” Buffy said.
Spike cocked his head. “Then why haven’t you killed me?”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s nothing stopping you, slayer.”
“But there is something stopping you.”
“And that doesn’t make me harmless, and you know it,” Spike said. He leaned forward. “If we’re talking restitution, you know I’ve been a killer.”
Buffy looked away. “I’m not an executioner,” she said. “It’s not my job to punish crimes. It’s to save lives.”
“I’m thinking there’s more to it than that.”
“I’m thinking you like to have your hands on me,” Spike said. “That’s why you’ll say hello by punching me in the face. Knocking me to the ground. Pushing me up against walls.”
“And I’m thinking you’re a sick, masochistic vampire to even put those two thoughts together.”
“And you’re a slayer,” he said. “And you do keep putting your hands on me.”
Buffy was about to insult him again when she realized he was right. She did beat him up a lot more than she really had to. He was easy to beat up, and she actually was the slayer – she frequently had a powder keg inside that needed to go off. He was a vampire. He could take it, he deserved it, and she didn’t have to feel guilty about it. So she used him as a pel when she really shouldn’t. What did that make her? Not a demon or anything, but it wasn’t fair of her. “I wasn’t trying to lead you on, Spike. I realize – now – that that’s kind of a turn on for you, but that wasn’t how I intended it.”
“I get that,” he said quietly. “Just like I get I’ll never be anything more to you than a sparring partner. Even if you wanted more than that, I don’t think you’d take it.”
“This isn’t. Just. Me,” he said distinctly. “It can’t be. Not the way you flirt with me.”
“I’ve never flirted with you!”
He looked incredulous. “Slayer, we flirt all the bloody time!”
“And you’re blind. You’ve got to be.”
“We don’t flirt.”
“We’ve been flirting since the first night we met.”
“You threatened to kill me.”
“And you did, too. We’ve been flirting the whole damn time.”
“We have not!”
Spike smirked. “Have too.”
He pointed at her. “So what do you call that?” he asked. He looked like he was trying not to laugh. “School girl taunts in the playground count, slayer. What do you think we’ve been doing?”
Buffy looked up at the ceiling, exasperated.
“Just admit it,” Spike said earnestly. “There’s something.”
“It’s not what you’re thinking.”
“Then what is it?" Spike asked. His eyes were so bright he looked like he was on a hunt. “Please. Tell me what it is, slayer, and I’ll believe you. But it’s not nothing.”
Buffy took in a deep breath. “We fight well,” she admitted. “We do, I’ll give you that. We always have. What was it you called it? A dance?”
Spike smiled a bit, and then twitched it back, to keep his face earnest. “Yeah.”
“And it kinda doesn’t matter which side we’re on, our styles kind of mesh.” This was true. They had no method, no trained rule of martial art. Buffy hadn’t been trained as a girl, and Spike had created his own style. They’d inadvertently come up with something similar. Kendra had called it sloppy. Buffy always thought of it as unpredictable. Either way, it worked. “But that’s all it is, Spike. It’s not love and it’s not affection and it’s not anything you can hang your stupid obsession on. I’m not a sick vampire. I can see how, for you, that might have done something weird in your head, but I’m human. It’s like we’re... good at playing tennis together or something, not some kind of intimate sexy tango.”
Spike blinked. “I was only going to go with a waltz, but hey, you want to compare it to the quintessential romantic interlude...”
“All right,” Spike said, still trying to quell a smile which Buffy wasn’t missing. “So we fight well together. You want to explain the teasing?”
“What else am I supposed to do with you?”
He bit his lip. The look on Spike’s face told her he had a number of ideas in that area.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“I know what you’re thinking.”
“Then I’m not the only one thinking it,” he said with a smirk.
“And you’re really pushing it, Spike.”
“All right, then,” Spike said, dropping the amused seductive manner. “Are those the rules, then? Pretend it doesn’t exist?”
Buffy looked down. “That would make me more comfortable.”
Spike took in a shaky breath. “All right, love,” he said again. “I’ll never say another word about it.”
Buffy nodded, as if they’d just signed an agreement.
“After tonight,” he added.
Buffy stared at the ceiling again. “Spike!”
“Just listen,” he said quietly. “You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to like what I’m saying. Just listen.”
Buffy rolled her eyes, and then pointed them at Spike. What.
Her eyes seemed to faze him, and he swallowed. He stared at the table top for a moment, and then took in a breath. “I love you,” he said. He swallowed again. “It’s not... something I meant to go and do. It’s a terrible curse I’ve inflicted upon myself, and I can’t escape it. No matter how much you might want me to.” He was trembling. Just a little. “But even though I’m... not a good man, I want you to know that I am here for you. Whatever you need, Buffy.” He stared at her then. “You are my love, my sunlight, my torment. And to my own horror, I fear I will love you until the day I am no more than dust.” He let out a shaky breath. Buffy wondered how long he’d been practicing that little speech. “So. That’s it. Ask me anything, and it’s yours.”
“Well, I’m not asking much,” Buffy said, taking the stage back. She was shaken. She didn’t like his intimacy. “Here’s the rules. Be normal. Don’t lurk around my house, don’t make any more sex-dolls with my face, and quit with the creepy stalker vibe.”
“And be available for Dawn patrol, I take it.”
“Well... yeah. If that’s okay.”
“My lady, I am at your service.”
“Well, if I need serviced, I’ll ask you. In the mean time, don’t...” Buffy stopped dead. “Can we pretend I just said something else?”
Damn. She really wanted to hit that look on his face. “In the mean time, just don’t be a creep,” she finished.
He looked insanely self-satisfied. “Well, it’s kind of my nature, pet,” he said. “Vampire and all. But I’ll see what I can do.” He tilted his head. “So, we’re good then?”
“Well. We have established ground rules. That’s something, I guess.”
“Yeah,” Spike said. His voice was softer than usual. “It’s something.”
Buffy swallowed. He was really getting hung up on that word something. Whatever it was between them....
Dawn was collecting her coat. Her friend Janice looked about in tears, so clearly the evening had not gone swimmingly, and the girls were going to want to get out of the bowling alley quickly. Buffy stood up. “Thank you,” she said, “for helping with Dawn.”
“It’s not a completely onerous task, slayer. The niblet’s kinda fun.” He looked around. “Though bowling is pushing it.”
Buffy turned to leave, and then turned back. “So, that dust thing you mentioned... does that mean there actually is a way to get you to give up this sick fantasy?”
Spike laughed, and spread his arms wide. “Go right ahead, slayer. My heart’s full open to you.”
Buffy rolled her eyes again and finally left the table.
Spike was left alone with a smirk on his face. “Not flirting, my ass,” he said to himself.