DL 1.15

Aug. 13th, 2005 01:40 am
[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Lesson the Fifteenth: Final Examination

by cousinjean
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy/Possession by Sarah McLachlan

Well, this is it for our version of Spike's redemption. Big love and thanks to all of the extremely talented contributing authors, each of whom managed to bring their own voice and ideas on the matter into the story while staying faithful to the spirit of the television series and managing to blend the individual parts into a seemless and incredible whole. I would not have even attempted to do this without you guys. You should each be very proud of your contributions. I certainly am.

Big thanks also to our extremely supportive and encouraging audience. Your positive feedback is what has made this project so gratifying.

Special props to georgevna and Milhous, because when we had a collective breakdown over the robot and I asked if we should just ignore that episode and write our own version of Season 5, if they both hadn't e-mailed me and said "Yes! Do it!" I probably wouldn't have followed through on the idea. Props also to an anonymous jamesmarsters.com poster who first brought up the idea of Buffy as Spike's soul (it was in an essay comparing S/B to Beauty and the Beast and if you know who wrote it then please let me know so I can give them proper credit), and to Peggin for recently bringing up the idea again and reminding me how much I love it.

Working on this story has been a blast. I expect nothing less from the sequel.


*
The Bronze bustled with the business of living. The band onstage provided the soundtrack to the many sagas unfolding within the confines of the club. Romances began while others ended, hearts broke while others mended, enemies schemed, friends commiserated, lovers danced, while others watched and waited, all to the beat of the music that pulsated through the building like a heartbeat. It was a celebration of life.

Only a handful of the club’s patrons knew how close that life had come to being snuffed out, and could appreciate what the chance to go on had cost. This convening of the Scooby Gang’s annual apocalypse aversion party lacked the sense of triumph and joie de vivre that usually followed saving the known universe from damnation or destruction. This time, the battle had cost them one of their own.

“What are we doing here, again?” Xander asked.

“Celebrating,” Willow told him, though the tone of her voice told them that she was doing anything but.

“And, what exactly is it that we have to celebrate?” he asked.

“Well,” Anya said, taking his hand, “for one thing, getting you back to normal. More or less.”

Xander smiled, and squeezed her hand. “Not that I don’t think that rates way high up on the Woo Hoo scale, but I think the ‘Thank God Xander’s back in his right mind’ party could have waited for a more appropriate time.”

“This is appropriate,” Willow said. “You're all better, we saved the world again, the hell gods are gone--”

“And so is Tara,” Xander said.

Willow looked at him, her grief evident. “I know. Do you think I don’t know that?”

“I’m sorry, Will. It’s just--”

Willow cut him off. “Tara died so that these things could happen. So that we could live. So that’s what we’re gonna do. It’s the best way to remember her. She would want this. We’re here to celebrate life, and to celebrate Tara.”

“Willow’s right,” Buffy said, reaching across the table to take her best friend's hand. “The clocks don’t stop, and neither do we. Still, it feels weird. We didn’t even get to go to her funeral.”

“The MacClay’s made it pretty clear that we weren't welcome." Willow's voice sounded heavy with the weight of her bitterness.

“It’s not right,” Xander said. “You should've been there. Don’t those people--and I use that term loosely--don’t they have any idea what you two were to each other?”

Willow picked at a cocktail napkin. “I’m pretty sure that’s why they didn’t want me there,” she said. “But it’s okay. They got her body, they can do whatever they need to do with it to make them feel better. But her spirit, they’ll never get that. That’s still with me.” She smiled. “I can still feel her, you know?”

Buffy squeezed her hand and smiled. “I know.”

“So that’s another reason to celebrate,” Willow said, wiping her eyes and sitting up straight. “We shouldn’t be sitting around here, all mopey faced. We should be dancing.” She stood up. “Who’s with me? Giles?”

“Um, no,” Giles said. “I believe my part in the festivities involves buying the drinks. It does not extend as far as dancing.”

“Thank God,” Anya said. As everyone looked at her, she added, “That’s just not something we need to see.”

“I’m forced to agree,” Giles said. “And I think now’s a good time to go buy more drinks. Would you care to help me carry them?”

“I’m not on the clock,” Anya said.

“Right, honey,” Xander told her, “that’s why he asked nicely.”

“Oh. Right. Sorry.” She smiled up at Giles. “I’d be happy to help.”

“Yeah, we both will,” Xander said, and followed them to the bar as Willow slumped back into her seat.

“Sorry, Will,” Buffy said, “I guess nobody’s in a very dancey mood right now.”

“I’ll go dance with you.” Dawn took her seat next to Buffy as she returned from the restroom. “Just not to this song, it has a weird beat that I can’t get into.”

“That’s okay,” Willow said. “That was just me trying to put up a brave front. I’m not really up to dancing myself just yet.” She sighed, and looked around the room. “Right now I don’t know if I’ll ever be up to it again.”

“You will,” Buffy said.

“You sure?”

She nodded. “I can’t tell you that the hurting ever goes away. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t. But eventually you get to where it’s not all you think about, and you even start to forget for little periods of time, and you start remembering what it’s like not to hurt. And then things like dancing don’t seem so out of place.”

Willow nodded. “I guess I’ll just have to take your word on that for now. But if there’s one thing something like this teaches you, it’s not to take the people you love for granted.”

Buffy smiled, and looked at Dawn. “That’s true,” she said, reaching out to stroke her sister’s hair. Dawn returned her smile.

“Something else I learned from Tara,” Willow said. “Don’t screw around with letting people know you love them. I mean, I waited so long, and wasted so much time, letting her know how I feel, because I was afraid. I knew it was right for us, I knew it in my gut, but I let so many obstacles get in the way, let so many things tell me it was wrong. They were stupid, unimportant things, but they seemed so huge at the time, and I let them hold me back. And now she’s gone, and I’ll never get a chance to make up all that time I wasted being afraid of us.”

Buffy considered her friend’s words, a little surprised at the weight they carried, and the relevance to her situation. As if on cue, her heart sped up as a shock of white-blond hair entered her peripheral vision.

“Spike’s here,” Dawn said, pointing towards the entrance, from whence the vampire made his way over to their table.

As he approached, his eyes met Buffy's briefly, then he cast them to the floor. There was a purpose to his step, and she suspected that, for once, it didn’t involve her. He wouldn’t let even her distract him from his goal.

“Hi Spike,” Dawn said when he reached their table.

“'Lo, nibblet,” he said. “Buffy.” He nodded at her, and she smiled in return, but he barely seemed to notice as he turned his attention to their friend. “Willow.”

“Uh, hiya, Spike,” Willow said. “Something I can do for you?”

“No,” he said. “Just, um, something I wanted to tell you.”

“Okay. Have a seat.”

He shook his head. “This won’t take but a minute. I didn’t get a chance to tell you the other night. About your friend…”

“Tara?”

He nodded. “I’m sorry. For what happened.”

“Yeah,” Willow said. “So am I.”

“I didn’t know her that well, or at all, really. I just wanted to tell you, the night after I got my chip out, I had a little run in with her.”

Willow looked alarmed. “Run in? What kind of run in?”

“Nothing like that,” he said. “It’s just…” he glanced at Buffy, and looked pained at what he was about to say. “I came here, after I figured out the chip was gone. I… well, I ran into your friend, and we had a little talk. Nothing earth shattering, but, well, she kept me from doing something terribly stupid, is all." He pressed his lips together and nodded, as if he was just coming into agreement with his words. "I just thought you should know that.” He cast another nervous glance at Buffy, who remained silent as the implications of what he was saying sunk in.

Willow stared up at Spike, then nodded. “Thank you, Spike.”

He shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

“Oh look,” Xander said as he returned from the bar, “Spike’s here.” He sounded less than thrilled, but his disdain held no conviction. Buffy suspected his response was borne more out of habit than out of true loathing.

“Harris,” the vampire said. "Good to have you back, mate." The last word held a touch of irony, but less so than usual. "But don't mind me, I was just leaving.”

“Do you have to go?” Dawn asked.

“'Cause we can get you a drink too,” Anya said. “Giles is buying.”

“Right,” Giles said, with forced cheer. “Because nothing would make me happier than to buy drinks for our former enemy and new ally.”

“Don’t strain yourself falling all over me, Rupert,” Spike said. “Really, I’m not staying. I don’t want to intrude on your little Scooby gathering.”

“You’re not intruding,” Dawn said. “You’re one of us now. Right, Buffy?” She looked at Buffy, as did everyone else, waiting for her response.

Buffy nodded. “It’s strange and utterly ironic, but true,” she said. “So you might as well have a seat.”

A fleeting smile flashed across Spike’s face as he looked at her, but then he looked around at the others who, though they refrained from arguing the point, didn’t appear to share her and Dawn’s conviction on the matter. “Appreciate the sentiment, love,” he said, “but I think I’ll be taking off, just the same.” He turned and started for the exit.

Buffy shot an irritated glance at Giles and Xander as she got up to follow him. “Spike, wait!”

As he stopped and turned back to face her, she realized that she had no idea what she wanted to say to him. As luck -- or perhaps fate -- would have it, the band chose that moment to play a slow ballad. Willing herself not to think about her actions, Buffy turned and walked out onto the dance floor, then turned back to Spike, and waited.

He simply stared at her for a moment, obviously not sure of her intent. She arched her eyebrows at him as if to say, “Well?” He came to meet her, moving as if entranced, or perhaps afraid of waking up. He stood before her, not seeming to know what to do.

She looked up at him and said, “You know you want to dance."

Being taunted with his own words seemed to snap him into action. Flashing a shy grin, he placed tentative hands on her waist, and as she rested her own hands on his shoulders, his confidence grew, and he pulled her closer, tightening his grip. She stared into his eyes as they began to sway in time to the music, and she willed her own eyes to convey acceptance, and appreciation for all that he'd done for her. Maybe even forgiveness. What she tried desperately not to show in them was her fear. Part of her still raged against the idea of being near him like this, and screamed at her to run away from this unnatural contact; but that voice grew more quiet each time she heard it. This time, she would not listen. She closed her eyes and laid her head on his shoulder, and cool fingers trailed up and down her back, making her shiver. The realization that she shivered more from the pleasure of his touch than from fear startled her, and she sought out the other voice, the one that had been there all along, a whisper at first, easy to ignore, but growing more and more insistent as time went on. The voice that told her, she belonged with Spike.

That voice frightened her more than anything she'd ever known. Even so, as she tightened her arms about his neck and breathed in the familiar, intermingled scents of burnt tobacco and old leather, she had the sensation of slipping into her own bed after a long absence from home, and she knew. The voice was right. She still didn't understand how it could be, and it still scared her; but it was a fear she was willing to face, and a concept she found herself eager to explore.

The song ended, and Spike slowly released his grip on her. Her own reluctance to pull away from him surprised them both. He tilted his head and looked at her like some sort of strange curiosity. He opened his mouth as if to say something, then bit his lip and shook his head. "Thanks for the dance, Slayer," he said at last, and turned to go.

Buffy grabbed his hand. "You're still leaving?"

Spike stared at their intertwined hands with wonder. He seemed at a loss for words, but then he looked at the table where her friends gathered. "They don't want me here," he said.

"I want you here."

Spike seemed to search her eyes, probably to see if she really meant it. He must have found what he needed to see, because he finally nodded and said, "All right."

She led him back to the table, where both Xander and Giles avoided eye contact with either of them. She tried not to hold it against the two men. They each had their reasons for being wary of Spike. He'd earned her trust, but if he was going to earn theirs as well, it was going to take some time.

Dawn greeted them both with a gigantic yawn.

Buffy laughed. "Looks like it's time to get you home," she said.

The younger sister waved a dismissive hand. "I'm fine," she said, though she looked like she could barely keep her eyes open. "I'm still too wired to--" Another yawn kept her from finishing.

"Right," Buffy said, "you're not tired at all."

Giles stood up. "I'll drive you to Anya's," he said.

"That's okay," Buffy said, "we've got it covered."

"But surely Dawn is too tired to walk home."

"I've got my car here," Spike said. "I can drive them."

"Like I said," Giles said, ignoring Spike, "I'll drive you."

"No," Buffy said, "we'll ride with Spike."

Giles looked at her, and she couldn't decide whether his expression said Irritated Watcher or Concerned Father. Probably both. "Are you certain, Buffy?"

"Yes," she said. "You stay, and be here for Willow."

Giles cast a warning glance at Spike, but then sat back down.

Buffy leaned over and hugged Willow. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

Willow nodded. "Buffy, be careful."

Buffy nodded. "It's okay, Will." She waved goodbye to the others, and she and Dawn followed Spike out to his car.

***

They rode in silence, except for Buffy's directions to Anya's apartment. Even Dawn, a veritable chatterbox under most circumstances, had nothing to say. A glance in the rearview mirror told Spike why. She lay stretched out across the back seat, dead to the world. Spike smiled. Too wired to sleep, indeed.

As they pulled up to their destination, Buffy turned around and groaned at the sight of her sleeping sister. "Poor kid," she said. "Can you help me get her upstairs?"

With Dawn's sleeping form draped across his arms, Spike followed Buffy inside the building. As she held the door open for them, she scrutinized her sister. "I think she's getting a little big for this sort of thing."

"Maybe," Spike said, "but if you ask me, the nibblet's earned a bit of babying."

Buffy nodded, and followed him up the stairs. "If you ask me, I think maybe you both have."

Spike managed to keep from stumbling on the stairs when she said that, and tried his best to maintain an air of nonchalance as she slid past him and led him up to her floor.

At the door to the apartment, Buffy fumbled a bit with her keys before unlocking the door and stepping inside. Spike expected her to take Dawn from him and say good night, but instead she held the door open and said, "Come in."

Just like that, he was reinstated. He felt that the occasion should call for a bit more pomp and circumstance, but he wasn't going to quibble over the details. The important thing was, he was welcome in the Summers home once again, even if this home was only temporary. As he crossed the threshold, he swore to himself that this time, he wouldn't give her any reason to revoke his invitation.

Buffy led him down a short hallway to a small bedroom, where he deposited Dawn in her bed. "Let me get her tucked in," Buffy told him as he headed back out to the hall. "I'll be out in a few minutes."

He closed the door behind him and headed back to the living area. As he waited for Buffy, he took stock of this new situation. It was nothing like the first time she'd invited him into her home. That had been out of necessity. He smiled as he remembered the awkward silence that had passed between himself and her mother as they'd waited for Buffy to make a phone call and get on with business. Even more awkward had been Joyce's attempts at small talk. Over the course of time he'd grown to feel quite comfortable in the Summers home, comfortable enough that he'd taken the privilege to enter for granted. It had pained him like nothing else when Buffy had taken the privilege away from him, even though he knew he deserved to lose it.

But now she'd given it back. Sure, her sis'd restored his invitation into the house, but it was Buffy's invitation that counted. As casually as she'd asked him inside, she obviously had no idea how much it meant to him.

What did it mean, exactly? What did this whole night mean? He'd gone to the Bronze for no reason other than to offer whatever comfort he could to Willow, to tell her about something important that her lover had done for him. Had he really wound up dancing with Buffy? And had she actually been the one to ask? It all felt like a dream, one from which he was terrified he'd wake up at any moment.

And then he had driven them home, her and Dawn, and they'd all come up together, just like... just like a family. His family.

Spike smirked at himself and shook his head. "Getting a bit carried away, aren't you, mate?" he said to himself. "You let it all go to your head, you'll just bugger things up again, end up right back at square one."

That was something he absolutely would not do. Not this time. Things were going too well. Maybe... maybe Buffy was willing to at least be friends. And if they could be friends, then maybe, some day, when she was ready... but it was up to her, wasn't it? He wouldn't push anything on her this time. He'd just follow her lead, see where she wanted to go with this. He'd follow her anywhere, wait as long as it took. He figured the one thing he had to give in abundance was time.

His fingers began to twitch, and he realized his hands were trembling. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so nervous. If his heart still worked, he imagined that it would be racing. Spike sighed. He was in desperate need of a cigarette.

***

Buffy found him on the balcony. She watched him for a moment through the glass doors as he paced back and forth, puffing now and then on a cigarette. He was gesturing, and seemed to be talking to himself. Or maybe he was rehearsing what he would say to her? Smart. She, of course, still had no idea what she would say to him.

Spike had been in and out of her life for the better part of four years now, and over the last two he had become a permanent fixture, despite her best efforts to pry him up and send him on his way. Unlike most of the other men she'd tried to love, each of whom had taken off the minute things between them had gotten too messy, Spike remained, the one who wouldn't go away, no matter how hard she tried to make him leave. No matter how messy things got. And when it came to her and Spike, messy was an art form.

But that didn't make him safe to love, not by any means. He remained a vampire, one without a soul. She knew first hand what a monster he could be. Even so, she couldn't deny the changes she could see in him. Nor could she keep on denying what had grown between them. Ignoring it wouldn't make it go away, and fighting it had thus far only made her miserable. She had to try and understand it, understand how this soulless being had come to love her and her sister, and even to care about her friends, and to turn his back on the evil that infused his very existence, to fight by her side. How was that even possible?

It was time to find out. Steeling herself for answers she wasn't sure she wanted to hear, she took a deep breath, and headed for the balcony.

As she slid back the glass door and stepped outside, Spike stopped pacing. He pointed at the apartment inside. "Nice place."

Buffy looked inside and considered the decor. "It's a little film noir for my tastes, but it beats charred and water damaged." She shrugged. "Anya was practically living at Xander's anyway, they figured she might as well just move in and let us have her place. But we're only here until the house is livable again."

"You know, I really tried to keep those wankers from torching your house."

Buffy nodded. "Thank you," she said. "God, I don't know what I'd have done if it had all burned up."

"You'd have managed," Spike said, "same way you always do."

"Maybe. All of the stuff I've had to manage lately... it was all getting to be too much."

"Well, at least the worst of it's over."

"For now, at least," she said. "But it's never really over, is it?"

"No, I s'pose it's not." Spike examined the butt of his cigarette, then snuffed it out on the railing. "So, you get Dawn all squared away, then?"

"Yeah," Buffy said, leaning forward on the rail and looking out over the parking lot. It wasn't much of a view. "She really must be exhausted. Poor thing's so out of it, she'd sleep through anything, short of another apocalypse." She wrinkled her brow and considered this. "Actually, even that probably wouldn't wake her."

Spike laughed. It was a sincere laugh, devoid of malice, and probably the first time she'd ever heard him laugh that it wasn't intended to mock her or her friends. The sound did something not at all unpleasant to her.

"I'm kind of surprised you're not that tired yourself," he said.

She smiled. "I'm beginning to get there."

"Oh. Um, maybe I should go, then, let you get your rest."

"No, don't," Buffy said. "If you left now, there's no way I'd be able to sleep tonight."

"Oh?"

She looked at him. He looked genuinely confused and uncertain, with none of the cock-sure arrogance he'd had when they first met. There was no question that it was a truly different being who stood before her now.

"I'm sorry," she said.

Spike raised his eyebrows. "You're sorry? For what?"

"For the way I behaved, when you first told me how you really felt about me, refusing to believe your feelings were real. For refusing to give you the benefit of the doubt, even after you'd earned it, when I found out about the chip. And for assuming the worst when you took off with Dawn."

Again, Spike laughed. "That's kind of funny, you apologizing to me. It should be the other way around, shouldn't it?" He shrugged. "Thing is, there's so much apologizing for me to do, I wouldn't know where to begin. And I'm afraid if I start, I won't ever reach the end."

"It's okay," Buffy said. "You don't need to say you're sorry, I know. And I've already forgiven you."

"Forgiven me?"

She nodded.

"Why?"

She shrugged. "You kind of seemed to need it."

He stared at her. Something seemed to be at work behind his blue eyes. Buffy felt she was witnessing another barrier fall.

"But," he began, and faltered. "But I don't deserve--"

"It's not about what you deserve," Buffy said. "And you're right, you don't. But I'm not sure anybody does. Forgiveness can't be earned, Spike. It has to be freely given for it to mean anything."

Spike nodded. "Yeah, I think I get that."

"You do get it," Buffy agreed. "What I don't get is, how? How come you can be sorry, and you can decide to do what's right, and you can watch out for my friends, and put your life on the line for my sister, and you can love me? How can you do all that without a soul?"

Spike seemed to study her for a minute. "You mean, how come I can do all that if Angelus couldn't?"

Buffy crossed her arms. "You have to admit, he made a pretty good case that no soul equals bad."

"That he did. And a year ago I wouldn't have bothered to argue it." Spike shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you, Buffy. I don't really understand it myself. And I'm not going to stand here and pretend that it's not a struggle. To not feed, to not kill, to not give in to the evil that's in me. But I'm not going to give in, I can tell you that. It's not going to beat me."

"How can you be sure?"

"Well, I suppose I can't be, not a hundred percent."

"That's reassuring."

"I can't be any more certain that I'll never give in to my base impulses than you or any of the other 6 billion or so human beings on the planet can be that you won't give in to yours. There's evil in all of us, Buffy. Whether or not we let it rule us is a choice. Even I have that choice. And I choose not to let it rule me."

"Wow," Buffy said. "If that's true, if vampires really have that choice, then what does that say about me? About what I do?"

Spike looked up at the sky and sighed. "It's not that simple, love. I had help getting here, you know. If not for that chip, it never would have even occurred to me that I could choose. And I never would have stopped fighting you long enough to figure out how I really felt, and I certainly wouldn't have spent any energy caring a whit about the Scooby Gang." He seemed to consider this a moment. "You know, it's funny. You're worried about me not having a human soul, but the thing is, I do."

Buffy raised an eyebrow. "Huh?"

"When I died, it didn't change who I am. Made me more confident, I s'pose, but I still had William's personality, his likes and dislikes, his passions. For all intents and purposes, I was still William, even without a soul. What changed was, I became disconnected from humanity." He shrugged. "Makes sense, if you think about it. It's no good to feel you're at one with your food supply. But that disconnection, it's what makes it possible for vampires to do what they do, without remorse. But you, Dawn, your mum -- hell, even your friends -- you've given me back that connection."

Buffy felt her brow furrow as she tried to make sense of this. "So what you're saying is..." She shook her head. "No, I don't get it. What are you saying?"

Spike stepped up to her and took her by the shoulders. "I'm saying, love, that, in a way--" he smiled, and marveled at her, "--you, Buffy, are my soul." He brushed a lock of hair out of her face, and lowered his head to look her straight in the eye. "You've restored what it was that I lost when I was changed. And now I've got it back, the only way for me to lose it is to turn my back on it, and throw it away. And I'm not going to do that."

Buffy swallowed, hard. Could this be true? It was the only explanation that made any sense. She wanted to believe it. At that moment, she realized, she needed to believe. It was time to make a choice. She reached up, almost involuntarily, and stroked his cheek.

"Damn," she said.

"What?"

She shook her head. "I really didn't want to fall in love with you."

Spike blinked at her. He opened his mouth as if to ask a question, but before he could say anything Buffy took his face in both hands and pulled him to her, silencing him with a kiss. In response he slipped his arms around her waist, and slid one hand up her back until it cradled her neck. Buffy slid one hand up to tangle in his hair while her other arm wrapped itself around his neck and pulled him closer as the kiss grew in boldness and intensity. Though it killed her to pull away, eventually Buffy was forced to come up for air.

As Buffy gasped, she studied Spike's face. His expression was a cacophony of emotions: disbelief, desire, love, hope, and just a hint of fear. Could it be that all of this frightened him as much as it did her? Do you think I like having you in here? he'd asked her once, when she'd been so unwilling to listen. Destroying everything that was me, until all that's left is you in a dead shell. Was this what he'd been trying to tell her then? That his ties to her had replaced his soul? He'd equated it with drowning. How terrible it must have been for him at first, loving her. And yet he'd refused to cower from it, instead charging ahead with the same bull-headed fearlessness with which he met every challenge, refusing to turn away from it even when she'd stripped him of any hope that it would ever be returned. He used to define himself as the Vampire Who Killed Slayers. Now, he was simply the Man Who Loved Buffy. Overwhelmed by it all, she couldn't help but laugh.

Worry became the predominate emotion on Spike's face. "What?"

Buffy shook her head. "Don't you find this funny?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Funny peculiar, or funny ha ha?"

"Well," Buffy thought about it. "Both, I guess. I mean, how the hell did we get here from where we started?"

The worry faded, and the corners of his mouth quirked up in an ironic smile. "Don't think I haven't spent days lying awake and pondering that question," he said. "Best not to think about it too much, I think. It's easier just to go with it."

"Yeah," Buffy said, "go with it. Like this?" She leaned up and kissed him again, refusing to hide her eagerness, and he responded in kind, but then he pulled back.

"Yeah," he said, "yeah, that's good." He was panting, and Buffy received a powerful ego boost from having made someone who didn't even need to breathe feel the need to gasp for air.

His desire was evident, but still he held back, letting her lead. This dance of theirs had definitely changed tunes, and he was allowing her to set the tempo. How different from her other lovers. Buffy's cautious voice warned her to take it slow, to think of how badly those past affairs had turned out, but she was still not on speaking terms with that voice. The other one, the one that told her she belonged here with him, told her that they'd already wasted too much time coming to this point. She agreed, and she refused to waste any more. If she was going to be with Spike, she would be with him completely, from here until -- until she simply couldn't be with him any more, for whatever reason. Her heart had already made the decision. Once she willed her mind to catch up to agreement, whatever fear she had left melted away. She leaned into him, nestling her head against his neck and wrapping her arms tight around his chest.

"I love you, Spike." How perfectly natural it felt to say it.

He made a sound somewhere between a whimper and a sigh as his arms enveloped her. "God, Buffy," he whispered as he brushed his lips across her forehead and trailed them down her cheek. "I love you so much."

Her hands slid up to his shoulders, and she clung to him as she nuzzled his neck, and his hands began to explore. As his explorations began to grow more fearless, Buffy released him and pulled away.

"I'm sorry," Spike said. "I thought--"

Buffy grabbed both of his hands and cut him off with a tender kiss. "If we start this out here," she whispered, "we'll never make it off of the balcony."

Spike tilted his head to one side and grinned mischievously. Could he possibly be any more attractive? "Well," he said, "that could be kinda neat." Buffy shuddered. Yes, he could. There was just something about the way he said that last word. "Give the neighbors a good show," he added with a wink. "Although, considering whose apartment this is, it might not be anything they haven't seen before."

Buffy heard a giggle, and realized with mild surprise that it came from her. When was the last time she'd giggled like that? And had she ever done so in his presence?

Spike seemed to scrutinize her. "I don't think I've ever heard you make that sound before," he said, as if in answer to her unspoken question. "Are you going to be okay?" he asked in mock concern, which only made it harder for her to stop. "Do you need to have a lie down?"

Buffy feared she might snort if he didn't stop, but she didn't care. She hadn't laughed like this in so long. Not since before her mother had taken ill. She didn't want to stop. She felt giddy. Drunk, almost, even though she'd only had cola back at the club. She was becoming drunk on Spike, she realized, and she liked it.

Spike joined in her laughter as he swept her into his arms and led her around the balcony in a graceful waltz. They slowed to a stop and stood there, swaying back and forth to music only they could hear, exploring new worlds in each other's eyes as their laughter died down.

As Spike stared into Buffy's eyes, his smile gave way to a look of stunned realization. "I can see my reflection," he whispered.

Confused, Buffy turned to glance at the glass doors behind her, but Spike grabbed her chin and turned her back to him. "No," he said, "not there. Here. In your eyes." He squinted at her. "Maybe it's just a trick of the light, but I swear..." He shook his head, and gazed at her lovingly. "I really can see myself in you."

Buffy didn't know what to say to that. She could feel herself welling up, and felt she was in danger of being reduced to tears if they continued like this much longer. She loved this, being here with him, holding him and being held, but she wanted more. Want ignited into need as she backed towards the door.

Spike reached behind her and slid the door open. "Shall we go inside, then?" All of his awkwardness from before had vanished. He wasn't quite the predator, and his cockiness seemed subdued, tempered somehow, but he was once again his old confident self. That confidence used to inflame Buffy's anger. Now it only inflamed her desire.

She backed into the apartment, and he followed, closing the door behind him. As evident as his self-assuredness was, still he held back, willing to follow her lead. Even as part of her wished he'd take control of the situation just as Angel or Riley would have done, the rest of her realized that this was why she loved him. One of the reasons, at least. He didn't put her up on some impossibly high pedestal, and he didn't make her feel like some fragile little girl. He didn't worship her, he wasn't threatened by her, and he didn't feel an overwhelming need to be her protector. He simply loved her, for who she was, nothing more, nothing less. He made her feel like his equal, and he treated her like a partner. Buffy realized, that's what they had always been. Even as enemies, they'd been partners. Dance partners, to use Spike's metaphor. They'd warred against each other, but if anyone else had warred against them, they'd somehow always managed to come together to defeat their common foe. He was her vampire, and she his Slayer, and woe to anybody who tried to interfere with their dance. It had been like that since the beginning. Now, he was simply hers, and she his, each freely giving themselves for the taking. Never before had a relationship of hers been this equal. The realization struck Buffy, that this was the healthiest relationship she'd ever been in. She couldn't help but laugh at the irony.

Spike lifted his scarred eyebrow. "Now, don't start that again, love."

Buffy stifled her laughter, and without another word, reached out and tugged on the lapels of his coat, pulling him to her. He came to meet her without resistance, and returned her hungry kiss as she pushed his heavy coat off of his shoulders. She heard a satisfying thud as it fell to the floor, and then she was in his arms. Powerful arms, she remembered as she slid her hands up them, tracing smooth, cool skin stretched taut over well-toned muscle; arms that were capable of crushing the life out of her. She recalled a time when this would have been the most dangerous place she could possibly be, but that seemed so distant now. She supposed the danger went both ways. After all, she was the only human who had ever bested him in battle, and she knew plenty of ways to kill him. She had been willing to kill him just a few days ago. And still he trusted her. The least she could do was return that trust.

Spike's lips left her mouth and moved back towards her ear, leaving a hungry trail as they moved down her neck. His mouth lingered over the scar at the juncture between her neck and shoulder, and Buffy tensed up in spite of herself. Spike raised his head to look her in the eye, an unspoken promise to do her no harm. Closing her eyes, she tilted her head back to allow him better access to her throat, an ultimate show of trust. Lowering his mouth back to the spot where Dracula had tasted her, and where Angel and the Master had drunk from her before that, he grazed it with his lips, flicking out his tongue to taste her skin, and nipping at it with his teeth. Flat, human teeth.

A low moan escaped from Buffy's throat, and she reached down and began to tug his tee-shirt out of the waistband of his jeans. Spike let go of her long enough to assist, pulling off his shirt and leaving his hair rumpled in a fashion that was utterly charming. He dropped the shirt on the floor next to his coat and returned his attention to her neck, and Buffy responded in kind, tasting the cool dryness of his bare shoulders and relishing the feel of his naked back under her hands. "Let's go to bed," she whispered in his ear.

Spike raised up to look at her again, this time to question her. "Are you sure?"

Buffy nodded, raising a finger to trace the tiny scar on his eyebrow.

"But, what if--"

"My mind's made up," she said. "I'm not going to change it."

"I love you," Spike said.

Buffy smiled. "I love you, too."

***

"What're you doing?"

Spike rested his head on Buffy's breast, enjoying the rise and fall of her breathing as she ran lazy fingers through his hair. "Listening to your heart beat," he said.

"How's it sound?"

"A bit strange."

"Strange? Strange how?"

"Strange that you've got one." Spike raised his head to look at her, and tried his best not to look embarrassed. "Never been with a girl who had a pulse before."

"Oh," Buffy said, and seemed to consider this. "So, is it a good or bad kinda strange?"

Spike grinned, and felt her heart speed up beneath him. "I could get used to it." He grabbed her hand and kissed the pulse point on her wrist, and then the one on her neck. Buffy made a contented sound somewhere between a sigh and a moan.

"Wait a minute," she said, "you mean you've never, I mean, with someone who's not a vampire?"

"Nope," came his muffled reply.

"Not even when you were human?"

Spike raised up on his elbow and sighed. "The world worked a bit differently back then, love."

"Right," Buffy said. "But that means, you've only been with Drusilla and Harmony."

Spike raised an eyebrow. He wasn't sure where this was going. "So?"

"Wow," she said, seeming a bit flabbergasted. "I just never in a million years would have guessed that I was the more experienced one here." She looked like the notion embarrassed her.

The phrase "Slutty the Vampire Slayer" flitted through Spike's mind, and he flinched internally at the memory, glad that he'd never actually said it to her face. Though, he'd said plenty of worse things straight to her, after he watched her get painfully dumped by that sodding college boy, hadn't he? It wasn't the physical fights with her that he felt badly about; after all, those had been fun, mostly, for her, he suspected, as well as for him. It was all the times he'd stooped to rub salt in her open wounds that he wished he could take back.

He shook his head. "Depends on whether you favor quantity over quality, I reckon." He smirked at her. "I'd wager a century with Dru beats a baker's dozen of starry eyed college boys."

Buffy's eyes narrowed. "Maybe, but what the hell did Harmony count for?"

Spike accepted her dig with an expression of feigned contrition. "Not much," he said, then turned serious as he let his adoration for her show through. "But for all intents and purposes, I guess you could say that this is my first time." He shrugged. "First time that matters, at any rate."

Buffy looked to be on the verge of tears as he kissed her, lingering there for several seconds. When they pulled apart, she looked like she might lapse into another one of her giddy fits of laughter.

"God, that was sappy," she said.

"Yeah, well, William was nothing if not a sap. When I get around you, it's next to impossible to keep the bits of him that are left in here from making us both into a complete berk."

Buffy's grin faded to a sweet smile as she reached up to sweep a delicate finger across his cheekbone. "I think I kind of like your William bits."

Spike rolled his eyes. "You would," he said as he rolled onto his back. Buffy rolled with him, draping an arm across his chest as she rested her head on his shoulder.

She traced a finger over the fresh scar where Glory had decided to do a little impromptu open heart surgery. "Did I ever say thank you for the way you looked after Dawn?"

Spike chuckled softly and kissed her hair. "I think you've sufficiently thanked me for every good deed I've done and every one I might be in danger of performing for at least the next year."

"I think you're mistaken," Buffy said. "This wasn't about thanking you. This was all for me."

"Point taken," Spike said. "I suppose I should thank you for letting me be part of the festivities, then."

Buffy began to giggle, but then stifled herself as she rose to look at him. "Seriously. The way you put yourself on the line for her, it was more than I'd have expected anybody to do for me."

"Didn't do it for you," he said, brushing a lock of hair out of her eyes. "I've grown kind of partial to the nip. I wasn't about to let anything happen to her. And I never will, not if I can help it."

Buffy smiled wryly. "You're our knight in shiny black leather," she said.

"God!" Spike said, rolling his eyes. "Do me a favor, and let's don't mention anything about knights again for at least, oh, I'd say, ever."

"Not a problem," Buffy said, and settled her head back on his shoulder.

"Although," Spike said, "you know, I was knighted by the queen once."

"Yeah, I know."

"You know?"

"Yeah, the prophecy said--" Buffy shifted, then continued, "I mean, I had a dream that you were a knight, and it might have been a Slayer dr--"

"What prophecy?" Spike asked.

"There wasn't any--"

"Look, you're real good at a lot of things, Summers, but when it comes to lying, you, in a word, suck."

Buffy scoffed at him. "And you don't? Let's see. 'Spike, what are you doing in front of my house?'" She lowered her voice and affected a horrid British accent. "'Uh, I was just out for a walk, and, uh, I never liked you anyway, and you have stupid hair.'"

Spike had to suppress a grin as he shoved her off of him and rolled on top of her, pinning her to the bed. "Focus, love. What bleeding prophecy?"

Buffy sighed. "Giles found this prophecy that said a vampire knight would rise up and protect the Key."

Spike stared at her in utter disbelief. "You mean to tell me you had a prophecy telling you what my intentions were, and still I had to jump through all those bloody hoops trying to get you to trust me?"

Buffy shook her head. "It's not that simple. He wasn't sure about the translation. He thought it could also say that you'd be the one to destroy it."

Too angry at the moment to look at her, Spike sat up and fixated on one of the posts at the foot of the bed. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Buffy also sat up. "Giles thought it best not to. And I agreed with him. It didn't change anything, and it was bad enough that I kept second-guessing myself over it. Knowing about it could have caused you to make a fatal mistake."

Spike sighed. "I almost did, you know. Destroy the Key, I mean." His anger subsided, and he looked back at her. She looked startled by what he'd just said. He shook his head. "Not Dawn. The Key."

"What do you mean?"

"After those knights torched your place, they captured me, took me to see Ben. He told me that if I drank from Dawn, I would become the Key. So we made a deal. He'd call off the knights, and I'd go take a nip of the nibblet -- not enough to hurt her, just enough to transfer all of her glowy Key bits to me -- then go back and let him stake me. No more Key, and Glory's shit out of luck. Problem solved."

Buffy remained silent as what he said sunk in. After a moment, she looked down at the jagged scar on his chest, and reached out to touch it. "You were going to die for her," she said.

"That," Spike said, "I was going to do for the both of you." He shrugged. "Seemed like a good plan at the time. But then I saw that Ben didn't keep up his end of the bargain by calling off the knights, and decided not to believe a word the bugger had told me. That's when I decided to just get her the hell out of Dodge."

Buffy nodded, then closed her eyes and sighed. "I should have trusted you."

Spike gazed at her. She was so damned beautiful. To be this close to her, in this fashion, filled something inside of him that he hadn't even noticed was empty. He wanted to begrudge her distrust, but he knew he couldn't blame her for it. He had only himself to blame, and she'd forgiven him for all his faults. How could he hold anything against her? He reached out and cupped her face in his hand, lightly stroking her cheek with his thumb. "We already had this conversation, love."

Without another word, Buffy closed the gap between them and settled herself over Spike's lap. She bent down to run her tongue along the scar over his heart, and then tilted her mouth up to meet his. Spike could taste her gratitude on the kiss, as well as love, lust, and something much more primal. She shoved him backward on the bed, and he pulled her with him, loving the feel of her warm body stretched out on top of his. "So," he managed between shallow, needless breaths, "is this all for you too, then?"

Buffy lifted her head enough to look into his eyes. "No, Spike," she whispered, and kissed him on the lips, sweetly this time. "This one's just for you."

***

Consciousness beckoned to Buffy, and she buried her face in her pillow and tried to will it to go away. Then memories of the night before came to her, and she lost the battle. With a contented smile, she stretched, enjoying the feel of the sun on her bare stomach. Then she gasped, and sat up.

Sunlight filled the room, but there was no sign of Spike. Checking the pillows beside her, she sighed with relief as she found a note lying in place of the pile of ash she half expected to see. But her relief didn't last long as she remembered the last time she woke up to find her vampire lover had disappeared after their first and only night together, as well as the last time that same vampire had left a piece of paper in her bed for her to find upon waking. Buffy swallowed, and reached out slowly, as if she were afraid the note might spring like a snake and bite her at any second. She tried to steady her trembling hands as she unfolded it and read:

Tho' I am damned,
I've tasted Heaven
Here in your arms,
So freely given.
My love and thanks
Aren't mine to give.
They're yours to take.
For you, I live.

How about that, pet? You've inspired me to write poetry again. Something I haven't done in a hundred years, and that I swore I'd never do again. Sorry I'm still no good at it.

I'm also sorry to leave you like this, but a quick inspection of Anya's sheer curtains convinced me I'd best get out of there before sunrise. Rest assured I'll be back as soon as the sun sets, and if you can't wait until then, you know where to find me.

All my love,
Spike
William

Buffy covered her mouth with her hand as she read, hiding the gigantic smile that had replaced the look of dread on her face as her insides went from a bundle of nerves to a pile of sentimental goo. Wiping a relieved tear from her cheek, she got out of bed and went to the closet. After shrugging into her bathrobe, she rummaged through the boxes of personal effects she'd managed to rescue from the house. After a minute, she came up bearing her prize: a small cedar box, like a miniature hope chest, that she'd received for her high school graduation from a local furniture company. Sitting on the bed, after making a mental note to see if the curtains in her bedroom at the house were still in good shape, she turned the tiny key in the box's lock and opened it up.

The box didn't hold much. Just a few mementos, remnants of her past relationships. She took out the Claddagh ring that Angel had given her, and tried it on her finger, just to see if it still fit. It was a little loose. All of her baby fat had melted off of her fingers since he'd given it to her. She wondered if he still wore his, and then she realized, she hoped he didn't. She took it off and put it back in the box. Next to it was a set of dog tags belonging to a Private Finn. Buffy picked them up and threaded the chain through her fingers, and wondered how Riley was faring in his jungle war. She wondered if she'd ever see him again, though she knew it was probably best for both of them if she didn't.

The tags had rested on top of a picture of the two of them dancing. Buffy took the picture out and studied it, and for the first time saw what others had plainly seen but to which she'd been so blind: the boy in the picture was clearly in love, but the girl clearly was not. A wave of sadness washed through Buffy, and it intensified as she realized that the picture was from Tara's twentieth birthday party. Willow and Tara could be seen dancing in the background. Buffy left the picture out, and put the dog tags back in the box. She'd see if the photo lab down at the drug store could crop her and Riley out of the picture and blow it up for Willow.

Buffy surveyed the contents of the box. Her love life, in a nutshell. Or, in a little cedar box. Same difference. Both relationships represented therein had had their fair share of good times, and more than their fair share of pain. Still, it was hard to harbor regrets when each had taught her so much about herself and the way the world works. She supposed that the more difficult a lesson was to learn, the more value it held. Angel had first taught her what it means to love someone with all your heart, and then he'd taught her how to survive the pain of losing that which you love. Riley had taught her of the dangers of guarding your heart too closely. Even that poop-head Parker had taught her what can happen if you don't guard it at all.

Buffy picked up Spike's note and read it again, feeling a little silly about the size of the smile it inspired. What had Spike taught her? She shook her head. What hadn't Spike taught her? Never one to flinch from the truth, he seemed to teach her something new about herself every day. But she supposed if one lesson stood out, it was that she is capable of loving with her whole heart again, and that the trust it takes to get there is worth the risk. It had been a long, hard lesson to learn, and one she would never forget.

Buffy carefully folded the note, and placed it inside the box.

Here endeth the lesson.

Date: 2012-08-26 02:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] truelyesoteric.livejournal.com
I read this when it first came out. I loved it so fucking much. This was one of two writings that got me into a fandom. This is like seeing my first again. Loves.

Off to read part II - Which is by far and away the best piece of Buffy ever.

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