He'd never felt so stupid, so inadequate. In life he'd often been reduced to silence by the cruelty of others with more confidence, more money. More friends. A more ready wit, and the desire to expend it. He remembered those days clearly, so long ago, when his strongest wish had been to find words to defend himself, explain his intentions, words that made sense in his mind but failed him when he opened his mouth. And now, facing Buffy, he had the sudden shameful impulse to flee, which he ignored, and to babble about how he loved her, which he also ignored.

So instead, he said nothing.

"You changed your hair," she observed softly. He almost had to strain to catch the words, even with his acute sense of hearing.

"It grew out," he murmured, as softly as she. "It didn't seem to matter."

She studied him in silence. He thought he would go mad. But this was up to her, how it would go. He would follow her lead. It was the least that he owed her.

"You seem different," she said, her voice stronger, more certain.

For a moment his mind stopped working. She knew. Her Slayer sense had asserted itself and she was able to see it, feel it, his soul. Feel it as he did, sharp and icy and forcing itself into every corner of his being, distinct and harrowing. Burning him inside until he felt cleansed where it had touched. Would she understand? Understand what it meant, that he had done this thing for her? That he would go through this willingly, gladly, in order to make himself worthy of her?

"I mean, the hair and the unpolished nails and the-the no coat, you just look different," she added.

Spike's heart sank. She hadn't sensed a thing. He was the same thing to her, the thing that had attacked her. Less than that, even. He'd stopped wearing the black nail polish after he let Glory tear into him like a piñata on Cinco de Mayo and Buffy had come to him and pressed her lips against his. He'd been so bruised, so broken everywhere that he could barely feel the pressure against his mouth, but he had known it was her and not the bot. He couldn't be so injured, so dazed, that he couldn't sense her. It was impossible.

But after she came back they had made love to each other all over town, sweet and soft, hard and violent and making each other hurt and bleed, and she hadn't even noticed that he wasn't wearing the polish. Hadn't looked at him long enough to see the hands that were touching her, even as she cried out from the pleasure they gave her.

It shouldn't hurt so much. God.

"Yeah," he said quietly. "Gave up the polish. I don't know where the coat is. Must be somewhere around here, but I haven't seen it." He could have sworn she flinched when he said that, but he was obviously in a mood to fool himself.

"Did Dawn tell you I was back?" he asked. He felt too formal, somehow, to use one of the nicknames he habitually bestowed. It seemed presumptuous, something he wasn't entitled to. Not right then, not with Buffy.

But he didn't feel like himself when he called Dawn by her name, and he wanted to feel like himself. Wanted to be Spike, wanted to be unchanged except for the little item he went to Africa for. The thing that would make everything okay.

That was the plan, at least.

Buffy continued to gaze at him without responding. Finally his words penetrated and she felt shock ripple across her mind. "What? Are you telling me she already knows?"

He hesitated. Obviously the Bit hadn't told her sister, for whatever reason. Probably mostly that she was a typical adolescent monster. Why didn't they have Slayers for those, he wondered absently.

Anger flashed through her as she waited for him to answer. What the hell was he was doing-covering for Dawn? Or for himself? Xander may have told Dawn the truth, but Dawn had always been willful, refusing to listen to common sense. And she had always adored Spike. Him back-her not saying a word-it was dangerous. Taking Dawn to Spike's crypt after the bathroom was one thing-he wouldn't have hurt her, Buffy knew that, despite what Xander had said. But the thought of Dawn keeping those kind of secrets..."Does she?" she demanded.

He nodded. "Saw her a couple days ago. She took one look and turned in the other direction. Haven't seen her since."

Buffy absorbed that silently. He couldn't tell what she was thinking. Should he say more?

Gingerly he cleared his throat. "Thought she'd told you. Thought that was why you were here."

She forgot her anger for the moment. What was she supposed to tell him? Well, after you tried to rape me I was pretty upset for an hour or two and then I whipped some bad guy butt and a bunch of stuff happened, mostly bad, and then I brought my kid sister over here for you to babysit and after I found out you had left I just kept checking your graveyard like some kind of...I don't know what, but something? And you were wrong, I don't love you, I couldn't love you, but I forgive you and I need you to forgive me?

"No," she answered instead. "I was just out patrolling, and happened by and, uhh...decided to say hi to Clem." Would he buy that? It didn't really sound believable to her. She'd never been a good liar.

He nodded, to her relief. Apparently he wasn't as perceptive as he thought.

Actually, she'd known he was back as soon as she saw the burba weed on the sarcophagus he used as a table, and the whiskey bottles littering the periphery of the crypt. Clem was more into orange-toned, processed snack foods and fruit punch. Also the entire line of Hostess products. She'd been by often enough to check the crypt to have found out a lot of his favorite things. She'd never seen a kitten, thank god.

But Spike really hadn't changed the crypt much since returning, not even getting things back to how he liked them. He hadn't even taken down the O-Town poster Clem had put up a couple of months after he left. And the bottles strewn around...that wasn't like Spike, she knew. Usually the only time the crypt was a mess was when they'd destroyed it together. While naked.

"So where were you?"

Right, then. He wasn't going to lie to her. Even if it would be easier. "I went to see a bloke I'd heard of. I wanted-wanted-" He broke off. Christ, this was a pisser. Her standing there looking at him, all cool and calm and politely interested. And him all naked in front of her, so to speak, telling her everything there was to know and who's to say she just wouldn't look at him and shrug? A soul? Why'd you get that? Weren't you listening all those times I said I could never love you? A soul doesn't change that.

Why would it? Why would it change anything? She'd met him in an alley where he'd sacrificed a minion in order to size up her fighting skills. He'd applauded and mocked her and done his damnedest to kill her and her little school chums, and that's how she saw him still. The soulless vampire who'd kidnapped her perfect little loverboy and gotten buried under a pipe organ for his troubles, the creature who'd snatched her best friends for a stupid spell, the demon who'd conspired with a Frankenstein monster to see them all dead. The vampire who wasn't dust only because it was unsporting to kill something that couldn't fight back.

That was then, of course. Now he could fight back, at least against her.

But the essential problem...Christ, he'd always led with his heart, not his head. When she'd kicked him off in that bathroom and he'd sat there, crushed by what he'd almost done, all he'd felt was horror. Horror at himself, that he could do such a thing to the woman he loved. Later, in his crypt, all he wanted to do was fix it. Make things right, so that she could trust him. Just rushed in, never even wondered if that was possible.

Because no matter how good he was, no matter how toothless, to her he would always be the same ravening monster who led an army of vampires against a schoolful of parents. No matter what he did, that was who he was to her. Every time they saw each other, he started again from that place. Had he really thought getting a soul would make her see him differently?

And no matter how badly Angel behaved, he was still her blameless, brooding darling. When he did evil, it was his demon. As if they were two different people. As if being souled were his natural state, instead of the result of a curse, a curse that could be broken at any time. But any good Spike did could be attributed to selfishness, somehow.

Dammit, he'd helped save the world more times than the poof ever had, but despite the good he'd done, to her he was still less than the git had been when he was living in alleys, eating rats. Where he'd been content to stay for a hundred years, helping no one. Was the soul that powerful, to make that self-absorbed half-life more worthy than all the times Spike had risked his life?

Like hell. That wasn't the power of the soul, that was the power of a first impression. And his was long past.

"Spike?" Buffy repeated. "Did you hear me? Where did you go?"

He shook his head. He was buggered. He gritted his teeth so he wouldn't shout at her, rail that he gotten a soul for her, for them, and deserved a fresh start. He knew he didn't deserve anything. And damned if he was going to fuck this up with his impatience. It had ruined too many things for him already. "Off. I had to go. I-I couldn't stay after-" He broke off. "After the bathroom," he said finally. Coward. Couldn't say it, could he?

Buffy could almost feel the lid clamp down on her emotions. There were a lot of things she didn't feel like discussing with Spike or anyone else, and the bathroom was up there. Not number one, but up there. "I don't want to discuss the bathroom," she said. He opened his mouth to speak, and she repeated more forcefully, "I don't want to discuss the bathroom." The won't was implied.

Spike nodded mutely. It was typical response from her; she had always loathed talking of anything more meaningful than how to kill the demon du jour and which pair of shoes best showed off her ankles. She shied away from it, emotion. Bury things, don't discuss them.

But it was up to her. It was only proper that she write the script for it.

He couldn't believe she was still there talking to him. He had no idea what to say, but he wasn't going to give up the chance. "How's Dawn? I didn't get to ask her when I saw her. Thought she'd mention it to you." Seemed like a safe enough topic.

Buffy shook her head. "No, Dawn's been quiet all summer. Quiet in a slammy kind of a way," she added, smiling faintly.

He echoed her smile. Dawn could really bring on the pain to those around her, he knew. He let out a small chuckle. "Yeah, last summer she got a bug in her ear about getting her navel pierced. Two weeks of pleading followed by four weeks of slamming, plus all the sullen glares you'd ever want to see," he recalled. "I put my foot down, ‘cause I knew you'd hate it-knew-" He broke off. He'd known she would have hated it, but she'd been in the grave.

She saw his intent in his eyes and shook her head. "Thank you," she said softly. "I know you took good care of her."

"No trouble," he muttered, ducking his head. He didn't like to think of last summer, even with her here next to him, alive and breathing and...alive. He and Snackpack had sat around a lot of nights, staring at walls and trying to come up with conversation that didn't revolve around Buffy; it had been a lot easier between them before she died. Didn't have to avoid any topics then.

But they'd had some fun, too, that summer. One night the two of them escaped the Scoobies and went up into the farmlands outside Sunnydale and made a little crop circle in some yokel's field. It had ended up more misshapen than geometric, and they hurriedly abandoned their makeshift tools in the middle of the ragged formation and ran off smothering their laughter as they heard the farmer in the distance, shouting and swearing about trespassers.

Probably shouldn't tell the Slayer about that one.

"How's the job?" he asked. He kicked himself. What a ridiculous question. She already had enough on her mind without him reminding her about that hellhole. He hated to think of her there, her spirit atrophying for a crap paycheck. Grease on her skin and in her hair. The stench had been absolutely noxious, but he never told her. Never minded, since the smell was accompanied by her.

Buffy found it kind of uncomfortable, talking to him. What was the phrase? An elephant in the room? It was like that. She wished they could just get past it, but she wasn't sure how to do it. But she didn't want it there, and the quickest way to deal with it was just ignore it. She had experience in that kind of thing.

But the job was something she could discuss without worry. One of the few things that had gone well in the last several...years, she supposed. "Actually, it's pretty good," she said, a tone of excitement creeping into her carefully controlled voice.

She saw the surprised look on Spike's face, and understood why. "I'm not at the Doublemeat anymore," she told him. Suddenly, with unaccountable warmth, she recalled him leaning towards her. Urging her to leave the burger place, telling her it would kill her. She'd been unhappy about that, because she needed the job so desperately. And, almost below her perception, she knew she was angry because he was the only one who seemed to give a damn about it. Giles had known she had ongoing money problems, but hadn't given her cash beyond that one-time infusion, despite the fact that he was drawing a paycheck from the Council every damn month. Xander had come in and drooled over the food and took what she gave him free. And Willow had never paid any rent, despite the fact that-

Forget that. Forget about that. Forget about her.

Spike's expectant face drew her mind back to the conversation. "I enrolled in the summer session at UC Sunnydale, and I'm a trainee with the campus police department."

He smiled, looking pleased. "So you finally get paid to patrol."

"About time," she agreed with a faint laugh.

She studied him. He looked...softer, somehow. His face wasn't set in such hard lines. Before, the only thing soft about his face were his lips, but now his eyes slid shyly from hers and he seemed to lack that tough shell he usually displayed. Usually, not always. She'd seen him without it a few times, mostly when she hurt him. Not by beating him, but by not caring enough.

His hair wasn't much longer than usual, but only platinum for the last couple of inches. The rest was golden brown, and looked odd on him. Uncharacteristic. Like Santa Claus with black hair. He'd started changing his hair the year before, alternating between the tousled curls she thought of as his boyfriend hair and the slicked back, Big Bad look. Like he couldn't decide which to be. It was curly now, messier than she'd ever seen it. Like he didn't care, which disturbed her, although it shouldn't.

Well, she wasn't going to beat herself up about her feelings any more. That time was past. If she worried about Spike that was her right. If she wanted to drop by his crypt to see him, that was her right, too.

Abruptly she stood up. "I have to go now," she told him, watching his face fall. He hid the disappointment quickly, though, she had to give him that. He had practice.

He stood back so she could move to the door without coming near him. She didn't seem to notice. At the entrance she swung around to face him, her face diffident.

"Maybe you could patrol with me, some nights," she suggested, her tone not giving anything away.

"Yeah, I'd like that," he agreed, cautiously.

She nodded, and left without another word.

Spike took a deep breath. He'd been dreading it so long, and now it was over. She'd been there, his home, and she looked at him without hatred. Without contempt. Kindly, almost. He should have hated for her to look at him with kindness, but somehow it seemed closer to tenderness than pity.

Maybe he was fooling himself. He did it fairly often. It was comforting. And, of course, ignoring reality made it easier to focus on his goals. When he was in Brazil with Dru, if he'd seen what he would become-chipped, the Slayer's willing slave, a punching bag for Harris-Harris-and, unbelievably, souled-he would have taken a nice morning walk. But all those things had come in small increments, and he had adapted. That's what superpredators did, if they wanted to stay superpredators. Or just stay alive, and partake in the simple but substantial pleasures of spicy Buffalo wings, reasonably good house bands, and the not-inconsiderable joy of laughing his ass off at the gits on Road Rules. Live to drink and dance and fall in love and fuck into sinuous states of languor.

Ah, ignoring reality, one of the keys to living well. Good thing he'd mastered it so long ago.

So he was more than pleased with how this evening had ended. Buffy talking to him like a person, inquiring about him. Not accusing, just asking. Being interested in where he'd been and what he'd done.

Not hating him.

Spike strode around the crypt, the excitement bringing on an excess of energy. He felt like running around and shouting at the top of his voice. He had always had a hyperactive streak, and when he was keyed up he almost didn't know what to do. It had led to many of his more unfortunate actions.

He moved to the refrigerator, hoping a little blood would calm him down. As he reached for the handle he noticed his nails, short and clean and bare. No polish. Her words returned to him, and he felt his heart contract painfully. Didn't hate him, but still hadn't ever really looked at him. When he had been looking at her, absorbing the amazing unbelievable sight of her in his arms, she had only been looking towards oblivion.

What right did he have to complain? She'd noticed now, at least. He'd known what he was doing. Known what she was doing. If it hurt, that's what made it life. He'd told the Slayer that, a year ago. That there was no guarantee of bliss. Life was pain, years of it until a stranger draws you down an alley and takes you from one life to birth you into another. And after that you meet the sunrise or an errant stake and ash over until everything you were was gone. Pain. It was the way of the world.

The world, incidentally, sucked.

Restlessly he paced around the crypt, wishing for...hell, who knew? Something to throw. Something to drink. Something to do, dammit. Fuck! Fuck, yeah! His present. He felt stone cold sober after his talk with the Slayer. His senses were sharp, he could smell a wino taking a piss three blocks over. One whiff of that sack of hair and bones and he'd know the bastard, be on him faster than mold on French cheese.

Well, provided it was a demon.

He stalked over to the chest, and stopped dead. Of course. Of course, of course. He shouldn't have expected any less. It wouldn't have been his unlife any other way. The chest was bare.

The bundle was gone.

 





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