Fic: ‘As Good as a Rest’ (1/3) by Quinara [R/NC-17]

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Helloo!! I’m sorry for being a bit quick off the mark with my day, since it’s only just gone midnight here, but I wanted to make sure I got some work done tomorrow, hence posting it tonight rather than compulsively faffing and not working in the morning!

What I have is a long fic in three parts:

As Good as a Rest.
[Sequel to The More Things Stay the Same.]
So, Buffy’s alive. Ish. Spike’s dead, but she’s hoping for the ish. Katrina’s definitely dead. At least the cops are investigating that one?

Author: Quinara
Rating: R/NC-17 for explicit sex (some of it somewhat dark? Or something?)
Length: ~31,000 words (in three chapters of approx. 10,000/9,000/12,000)
Setting: Late S6, AU OAFA.
Notes: Many thanks to evilawyer for her help on US-California finance thingemies, lettered for reminding me how many words could be conceived in a short time period, plus extra massive thanks to dear bogwitch, who was a brilliant and fantabulous beta, sounding board and whinging post, comboed all in one and without whom this fic would probably have been ditched halfway through. Or just suck. [ETA: Plus, she made me a lovely, lovely banner, which you can see under the cut!]
As mentioned above, this fic is a sequel to my seasonal_spuffy fic from the last round, The More Things Stay the Same; I think it functions fairly well on its own as a post AU Dead Things AU fic assuming that Buffy and Spike are getting along better – but why would you read this on its own when you could read a 55,000 word diptych? :P The chapter titles are indeed from Dead Things, BTW.
Warnings: Graphic violence? Otherwise nothing the AO3 would make you warn for, but violence and sex blur a bit at certain points. There’s also angst that maybe isn’t angst and fluff that maybe isn’t fluff? I’m bad with judging tone.

Buffy smirking in her DMP uniform; Spike looking intense; orange and purple swirly stuff: As Good as a Rest, by Quinara - banner made by Bogwitch

Chapter One: Don’t Close Your Eyes.

She generally had good reason to panic about her birthday, but this was something else.

Jerking upright, Buffy woke bathed in sweat, her first lungful of air sucked in so hard it wouldn’t pass comfortably into her chest. She coughed, spluttering, shaking from her dream: the box, again, it was always the box – but that part had been different this time, afterwards…

No. Desperately, Buffy concentrated on her surroundings, trying to CBT her way out of a crisis the way Willow’s support group told her to every week. OK, she thought, breathing as the pre-dawn air whipped her skin, she was naked; she was not in a fugly funeral dress chosen to cover broken bones. No reason to panic there, even if it was pretty chillsome. And – she was in a crypt, but that was all right. It wasn’t her grave, it was Spike’s home, where he lived, where she slept sometimes. There was a distinction, definitely. No need to panic at all. Right?

To be honest, the crypt wasn’t very comforting as places to wake up went. The only thing in her eye line was a skull jutting out of the earthen wall, candle in one eye socket and cigarette butts overflowing from the other. Issues of clean-living aside, that was –

Although, maybe it wasn’t a skull. It didn’t have to be a skull, did it?. Maybe it was only an unfortunately formed rock, with indentures?

Buffy rolled her eyes. Who was she trying to kid? It was a skull. She was twenty-one tomorrow, had almost been out of the grave as long as she’d spent in it, and she was waking up in crypts. With grimy old skeletons lodged in the wall and a slightly fresher corpse resting at her side.

And yep, he was still a corpse. Apparently managing to sleep through her Hammer Horror moment, Spike was perfectly still and definitely not breathing. Not even as she watched him, waiting for REM (vampires dreamed, didn’t they?) or some nerves to twitch or dust to irritate his nose. It was creepy when he did nothing, really creepy, just like it always was, but there he was. Dead.

Two weeks ago she would have run from the creepiness, the sight of his dead body on the bed and the feeling (eww; oh, why was she thinking it?) of his dead – stuff between her legs. These were the times that she felt like a necrophiliac, felt really disgusting, and it actually hit her more viscerally than remembering how many people he’d killed. But she was trying to work through that, if only because of the hypocrisy where it didn’t seem to bother her when she was jumping his dead old bones, nor when he was active and moving around and grinning at her.

Snuggling back under the sheets, however, Buffy realised that she was still on edge from the dream. Her new and revised way of reacting to this feeling was to poke Spike awake, bring him back to life. She was supposed to ask herself how she’d ended up rolled away from him, let him get so cold – it was still January, after all – but she wasn’t. Right here and now, her hands were staying to herself.

Attempting to make them move sent a hand out towards her purse, the wrong way, where it scrabbled for the five-dollar alarm clock she’d taken to bringing with her everywhere. That was a problem, but, oh, maybe she had hours; maybe she should go back to sleep…

No, she realised once she’d pulled the thing out of its handy compartment (probably meant for a cell phone, but funnily enough she didn’t have one of those), there were only twenty minutes left to go before she had to get up. She was due for the pretty heinous opening shift, where she stocked all the things she would have sworn she’d stocked at closing and then dealt with the breakfast crowd who didn’t want to get to work either. Still, maybe if she just shut her eyes, she’d get a few more minutes rest, and then at least she’d forget about –

It was at this moment, however, probably because she’d pulled the blanket from underneath him, that Spike happened to roll over to place his hand on her arm. This was not unusual, but her reaction was. He felt freezing, and she couldn’t help it, she jerked herself away from him, shivering in reaction to how dead he felt, like a dead body falling on her, not a boyfriend-type-person waking up. “God –” she said, just in time to see the hurt look cross his face.

“What –” he replied shortly, before covering with a curl of his lip. “Well, good morning to you, too, pet.” Great. Morning defensiveness. “Sleep well?” The bitch was implied.

“Apparently not so much.” She tried to keep calm, retain control, even though she was still clutching the sheets in her bone white fingers. It was really, really cold. “I, um… Yeah.”

For a moment, he stared at her, defensive glare folding into actual, real sympathy, but that hardened pretty quickly as it became clear she had nothing to give him. “Fine,” he said at length, slumping back against his pillow in a sulk. “Don’t tell me.”

It was about then that she realised something was really pretty wrong.

The thing was, it wasn’t like life had been all sunshine and roses between her and Spike over the last week. Sure, she’d accepted that maybe she was seeing him for real, but he was still bitter that she’d kept it a secret, and she was bitter that he was bitter; and you had to face up to the basic fact whatever that Spike and sunshine weren’t exactly compatible. But there had been something, moonlight and violets, maybe; a gentler side to the bruises and the you-get-off-on-asphyxiation-Spike? – she had actually been trying, with words and things. Mostly puns. But right now she didn’t even have those.

And, like, the way he was looking at her now, too mercurial to stay sulking so furrowing his bad-dye-job eyebrows instead, worrying about her silence, naked to the waist with the sheet not exactly decent – that was all normal. They talked post-coitus now, they really did, sometimes pre- as well, sometimes even in the absence of all immediate opportunities for anything, so the worry was expectable. She was a little worried too.

Eventually words came out of her mouth, but they weren’t what she really wanted to say. “I think I might get to my shift a little early,” she found herself apologising, awkwardness solidifying into flight instincts. Her eyes had dropped from Spike’s already; her leg was leaving the bed for the cold crypt air. An excuse she hadn’t even thought about fell onto her tongue. “Those vamps might try and eat their way in again, you know?”

He wasn’t moving, still corpse-like in the corner of her eye (enough to make her shiver), but he watched as she got dressed, confused, calculating and too damn perceptive. Even if his words were banal: “Shame undeath can’t make a bloke kick the Medley habit, innit?”

“Yeah,” she agreed, pulling up her jeans, trying to mock their usual conversation. It wasn’t really happening. “Good thing you only died with the urge to smoke, drink and gamble, huh?”

OK, no way had she meant to say that and make it sound so bitchy. When she looked up, a little shocked at herself, deodorant in one hand and t-shirt in the other, Spike was frowning even harder than before, sitting up with one arm tossed casually behind his head. “Is that what you think?” he asked at this point, slow and snake-like. More deadly than dead.

“I…” she began, not trusting herself to talk. This was all going wrong, and strange, but, honestly, when you thought about it, what stones did he have to throw at other vampires? How could she think that –

No. She refused to think. Angrily, she threw down her deodorant and pulled the tee over her head, grabbing her DMP shirt from the floor to finish off her outfit, covering it up with her coat. Her mind was not allowed to screw this up now, not when she’d actually started getting things good, not when she’d actually started feeling properly alive.

“Buffy…?” His voice came gently, for him.

And yet, all the same, she snapped as she left, “It’s too early for me to think anything. We can talk later.”

With that, she basically fled. Again.

So, back in the real world, this was how her finances stood:

By California law, Joyce Summers had left LA with thirty percent of the proceeds from a four-bedroom house on the Westside. In Sunnydale, that had translated to a forty-five percent down payment on 1630 Revello, while the divorce settlement had Hank covering a third of the monthly mortgage payments (no one was quite sure whether this would have been less before Dawn, or whether this was actually just for Buffy, with changing their father’s finances far too complicated for the monks). That meant that when Willow and Tara had chosen to cover half of the payments, life insurance covering the other half, they had actually only been paying for a third of the house (but no one had told Willow this yet; it possibly wasn’t polite and made more sense this way anyway, now that she was living there on her own).

Unfortunately, with insurance premiums that much higher in Sunnydale and the Summers’ name rather tarnished by frequent claims, increasing her equity in the 1630 was not as feasible as it might have been for Joyce, and the extensive structural repairs that were required in late ’99 had actually pushed her to refinancing. This had not looked good to the bank, especially after the monthly payments had become interest only againby late 2000.

However, there was still money in the house. And, despite certain financiers’ pessimistic opinion, property values in Sunnydale were actually rising steadily, if slowly, especially on Revello Drive and in the immediate surrounding neighbourhood. In normal circumstances, selling Revello would have given Buffy more than enough for a down payment on somewhere new. The only problem was credit, which didn’t tend to come knocking at the doors of people who’d only got their name so far as an ATM card and currently earned less money in a day than the bank manager thought was reasonable to spend on a take-out.

All in all, there was no way they were moving. “But,” Dawn finished, pulling some papers free from a sheaf of hopefully finished homework, pushing them Buffy’s way, “there’s also something going on with the gallery, ‘cause Mom bought into a bit of it when we moved here, only I think she was in the middle of selling it when she…” She trailed off, and they both stared at each other for a moment before Dawn got going again, shook herself and continued, looking down, “And – do you remember that Brian guy? It turns out she was just messing with us when she said they’d never met before, because I think he’s the guy who owns…” Again, Dawn swallowed. “Anyway, there’s money tied up there as well, but we’re not really sure what’s going on.”

If nothing was certain except death and taxes, Buffy was pretty sure she had no hope left at all. After another abyss of a day at the DMP – that was if you could even call something a day when you didn’t see sunlight and every hour felt the same, but she was going with it for the moment – she was here in the Magic Box, getting temporal whiplash every time a customer walked in and she realised it wasn’t even five-thirty yet and Anya hadn’t shut. Dawn and Anya were talking to her about money, but it was going in about as well as it had the first time round. Although the spreadsheets were shaded in rainbows this time.

On the other side of the table, the two of them looked at her like they really expected Buffy would say something. The bright blue walls loomed behind them, but Buffy was still thinking about Spike. And whether she’d been too rude to that guy who’d brought out the sleaze around lunchtime. And whether it was three days food they had in the house, or if they could maybe eke it out to four.

Nevertheless, she salvoed eventually, trying to engage. “So…” She could deal with numbers, couldn’t she? Maybe it would be easier if she imagined them all as demons and figured out how she’d stop the apocalypse. She could give Brian a broadsword – she’d always liked him. “So what you’re saying is –” It wasn’t the apocalypse, though, was it? Buffy thought as she leafed through her papers. It was all too mundane for that. “– we can’t move house.” Not to mention that they’d already lost.

Anya bit her lip. “No,” she confirmed, apologetically at least, even if her eyes did drift over Buffy’s shoulder to the customer walking in. Buffy looked back self-consciously, eyeing the woman and her suit blazer jacket. She was heading over to the blessed candle display, and Buffy bet she was she was so going to eavesdrop. “I’m sorry,” Anya continued, drawing back Buffy’s attention. “But – and I’m not the financial advisor you really need here, Buffy, so you might want a second opinion – but I don’t think things have to actually be that bad for you, especially if moving house is the goal you have in mind. There’s money caught up in the gallery, for sure, and Dawn’s college fund…” This seemed to distract Anya, just for a moment as her voice went quiet, conspiratorial almost, even though Dawn herself was sat right next to her and rolling her eyes. “It’s probably the healthiest account you have, when it comes down to it. But I’m not sure you can get at the money without Mr. Summers to co-sign, not until Dawn’s eighteen, and even then I think it’s covered by…”

“Dawn’s college fund is for Dawn’s college,” Buffy interrupted, certain about that at least. “That’s not even a last resort. It’s another dimension of resorts.” Dawn seemed pretty embarrassed by her saying this, but Buffy hoped she shut that down with a glare. It wasn’t happening.

“OK, fine,” Anya agreed, bouncing back with a shrug. “No problem. Education is important.” She nodded, confirming the point, before breaking into, “And, actually, that’s what I’m trying to say. There’s no easy way of putting this, Buffy,” she continued, not really making it sound difficult, “but your dead end job is only ever gonna take you to a dead end, unless you get promoted pretty soon. You can’t afford 1630, basically, but if you ditch the mortgage, you aren’t gonna get another one, and renting might work out, but it’s really seriously possible you could get through your money too fast for it to make a difference, and then you’d be left somewhere even worse than before. Add in that we don’t even know how much the gallery sale involves, nor the legal costs, whether this Brian guy’s gonna play by the book…”

“Um,” Dawn interrupted, probably catching sight of Buffy’s steadily widening eyes, “we’re going with the glass is half full, remember?”

“Oh yes,” Anya remembered, continuing, “anyway. Your employment. As an idea, it’s a good one: employment is the backbone of our great capitalist society and more likely to ensure personal happiness than child-rearing, according to a poll in Cosmopolitan magazine. Good job – no pun intended. But.” She paused, clearly for emphasis. Slightly too long. “If there’s one thing I have learned from Xander’s many experiences of unskilled labour, thankfully now in the past, it’s that education is important too. You don’t want to end up in a life of minimum wage serfdom, especially not when you have Dawn to be responsible for, plus the high risk of permanent injury that follows slaying like a paragraph of fine print.” She rounded off, “So, if you want my advice, that’s where you should be focusing your attention.”

In the immediate wake of Anya’s speech, Buffy wasn’t quite sure what to say. She had a feeling Anya had misread the Cosmo article, but otherwise she made it all sound really obvious and, well, simple. The thing was, Buffy was certain reality wouldn’t be like that. Even if there was some money in the gallery deal that they could get hold of eventually, enough to put her through graduation even, what guarantee was there gonna be of a job at the end of it? There were people at the Palace who’d gone to UC Sunnydale, who’d majored in sellable things like Bio and Comp. Lit, so what hope was there for Buffy, with her record the way it was? And would there even be enough money to get Dawn through high school after that? It wasn’t like that was cheap.

Honestly, if there was anything at all left in her own college fund, after the hospitals and funeral directors had had their share, Buffy had been half-thinking for a while that she should get it transferred into Dawn’s – and now she was thinking the same with this gallery stuff. Dawn was going to get offers that blew Northwestern out of the water, and Buffy’s job, one of many, was to be there when she got them to tell her she could go. No way would Mom have expected anything less.

And Buffy didn’t really see herself going back to school, anyway. That was pretty much the important point. They all remembered the great time-swirling incident – and it wasn’t like she’d been keeping up with Willow and Tara when they’d gone normal speed. Really, when it came down to it, she couldn’t see herself doing anything other than wearing the cow hat for the next few years, but she didn’t quite know how to express that without sounding defeatist.

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’re saying,” she started eventually, attempting a smile in Anya’s encouraging direction, “or what you’ve done or anything, but I – I don’t think I can go back to school, right now. Besides, I figure registration’s pretty much…”

“Actually –” Anya took a breath, sitting up straighter in a way that implied she had solutions.

Buffy spoke over her, not wanting the complication. “Besides, you know Warren and his guys are getting planning with something. They’ve been quiet for weeks; I don’t think ‘send Buffy invisible’ was their final master scheme.” She didn’t really like it when the bad guys went quiet; it usually meant that she’d missed something, and as much as the reprieve had been nice, it was getting to the stage where something big was probably coming.

“Maybe you scared them away?” Anya suggested, shrugging, her eyes drifting back to her customer as she lowered her voice. (By her side, Dawn was picking at her cuticles.) “Maybe that was actually their plan, to turn you into pudding.” She looked at Buffy again, reassuring smile back on her face. “You’ll get them in the end, I’m sure.”

Buffy sighed. Really, though, wasn’t that the problem? “But that’s the thing,” she said. “I can’t even do anything if I did ‘get them’.” More than turning into pudding, more than having to rely on Spike’s surprisingly spotty recall of her proportions, that was what the invisibility escapade had drummed home. They saw nemesis; she saw pains in the ass, who she couldn’t kill, couldn’t really do anything about and who she had to hope would get bored before they did any real damage. It gave her a headache when she thought about it too long, but – “They’re human.”

“Oh,” Anya replied, shifting uncomfortably on the bench. “Well, I’ve seen their type before.” She was still trying, it seemed. “Maybe they’re all about the big ideas right now, but I doubt they’ve got any real vision for power. If they killed you and took over Sunnydale, I doubt they’d even know what to do – they’d be dethroned in a week.”

Seriously, Buffy tried to humour the ex-demon as much as she could, but, boy, could it be hard. “That’s great, Anya,” she said. “It’s just – the killing me part is kind of more what I’m worried about?”

Rebuffed, Anya sat back, looking up as if to tot through the pros and cons in her head. Before she could say something essentially crushing, however, Dawn cut in, “And that’s really good.” She sounded hopeful. A little patronising. “You should worry about that.”

When Buffy looked her way, it was obvious the sentiment was well meant, but, still, you had to wonder whether bluntness was catching. “Thanks,” Buffy said, eyebrow raised and feeling slightly affronted. “It’s always nice to know you care.”

“I just meant,” Dawn continued, blushing as she rolled her eyes, “with the geeks and stuff, it’s nice that you’re thinking ahead. To the future. Where you’re gonna be. I knew you’d been thinking about it a little, but…”

The implication was about Spike at that point and it came over loud and clear, making Buffy dart her eyes away to the vinyl floor, then glance to see if blazer-woman was still listening. Was it true? Maybe it was fair to say that Buffy had started thinking about Spike in the way that people got thought about, but did that make him part of the picture? Did that mean she was thinking about the picture? Was she meant to be using him as proof?

“Wait, what’s Buffy been thinking about?” Anya asked, not vanishing even though Buffy wasn’t looking at her. She sounded curious, which, actually, wasn’t good… “Is it something good?”

“Oh, you know,” Dawn continued to talk, “she’s been spending way loads of time Spike…”

Oh, god, no.

Now Buffy was looking up again, glaring as her heart raced. How dare you? almost came out of her mouth as she stared her sister down, because that had been the unspoken pact: Spike would come round more and Buffy would have fewer secrets; Dawn wouldn’t tell a soul until Buffy was comfortable. That was… It was unwritten law

But apparently Dawn didn’t remember, or maybe didn’t care. For a moment she started to wince, like she hadn’t meant to say it at all, but then she tossed her hair, eyes clear and insouciant with rebellion. What? I’m not allowed to make an observation?

Beaten in this particular glaring throw down, Buffy darted her eyes to Anya’s, trying to work out how much she was putting together, because Dawn wasn’t gonna take it back. There was some sort of recognition on Anya’s face and it seemed pretty accurate, that was the awful thing –

– but it was saved, suddenly and completely, as the candle woman made a move towards the cash register. “Excuse me,” Anya said, attention averted as she almost leapt from the table, leaving Buffy far freer to argue with her sister.

Freedom brought the floodgates loose. “What the hell was that, Dawn?” she demanded as soon as she was able, leaning forward onto the clouded glass and hissing. Maybe she was overreacting, maybe she had a few Spike-related issues left over from the morning, but she was still ticked. “What are you trying to pull?”

With another toss of her hair (and, dammit, side-note, Buffy really missed having hair to toss), Dawn leant forward to meet her. Thankfully she kept her voice at the same quiet volume. “I’m not trying to pull anything!” she hissed. “What are you doing, Buffy, keeping your secrets so secret you freak out because of what Anya probably thought was a joke?”

“It’s called privacy, OK?” she spat back, not sure why she suddenly felt so threatened, but certain that she felt it. It was making her hands shake. “I didn’t think I needed to explain…”

“Are you ashamed of him?” was all Dawn shot back, accusing and unwilling to compromise. “Is that it?” God, it had only been a week, but Dawn had become more insufferable on this topic than Spike; Buffy tended to forget, because there wasn’t usually much chance for it to come up, but, yeah, she was persistent.

“Of course I’m not,” Buffy began, starting out strong but ending up unsure where to go. “I…” She wanted to look away, but she knew if she did that then Dawn would assume the worst. “He’s Spike, Dawn,” she tried to explain, speaking even more softly. “He’s a vampire; he’s – dead, you know?” Didn’t she understand that? Because, actually, it was quite simple. “What’s everyone gonna think?” They probably all saw him for the corpse he was. “What do I even say?”

“You dated Angel OK,” Dawn replied sullenly, pushing back. “He was dead.”

“Yeah,” Buffy said, simply, getting to the point that was more important than the Scoobies, “But I hadn’t been. Not really.”

That was it, wasn’t it? It felt like that might be it, or at least it had this morning. Sure, her heart had stopped when she’d drowned, but she knew now that that had been basically like falling asleep. There was nothing like it, after all, no way to convey how it had felt to wake up in a coffin, to regain consciousness before her toes and fingers and eyes had fully fixed themselves, to feel, for just that split second, the way the rot had clung to her, muscles dissolving into it down her limbs. The memory of heaven had been fading for months, but she still remembered that feeling of undeath, the feeling of being wrenched back to this unnatural state, and – wasn’t that what Spike was? Only seconds away from collapsing into dust? How could she sleep with him and really come back to life?

Dawn was still staring, apparently not getting any of this as shudder-worthy. “Your logic is so senseless,” she said, reclaiming their normal talking volume. “But whatever, you know he’s coming over, right? You’re gonna have to socialise in front of people.”

“Huh?” Buffy asked, slightly surprised by that; she hadn’t arranged anything, she was pretty sure. “Tonight?”

“You said if I cooked I could invite who I wanted,” Dawn continued. She looked almost entirely merciless. “So I invited him.” She smirked. “Guess that means you won’t have a chance to wallow in your issues.”

“And when did you arrange this?” Buffy asked, slightly nervous. Although, if she thought about it, she was curious as well, if only because she was usually pretty knowledgeable about Spike’s whereabouts. She couldn’t think how Spike would have seen Dawn after the cooking conversation, but before now. They’d only talked food, what, yesterday morning?

Going by the look on her face, the concept was much less strange to Dawn. She tapped a pen on the table, irritated and sarcastic. “He came round last night when you were at work?” Oh, right; now it seemed obvious. Funny – Buffy tended to forget that the rest of the world didn’t actually come to a halt when time stood still at the Palace. It was in a dimension all on its own. “We watched TV,” her sister carried on, apparently calling amnesty on their argument for the moment. “Oh,” she seemed to remember suddenly, blushing. The pen went limp in her hand. “And somebody called for you.”

Deflating, Buffy sighed. Yeah, the argument probably would have to be put on hold for some other life stuff. That stuff was never over. It was like unkillable geeks. “Who was it?” she asked, resigning. ‘Somebody’ meant that it wasn’t gonna be a good call; good news, if there was any, always came from someone with a name.

Dawn looked embarrassed, though, which almost certainly meant she’d failed to maintain their mom’s old standards for telephone answering. “She, uh, didn’t say… But I figured you weren’t gonna be home until tonight anyway, and she said she’d call back.”

“It wasn’t social services, was it?” After her raid on the offices, which she was totally ashamed about, Buffy had kind of been hoping that they would get off her back. Not that she’d really expected the whole system to climb down from her spine and leave its friends behind, but the hope had been nice. Maybe some of the anarchy as well. (She was never telling Spike about that escapade, not ever.) “Did she sound like a Kroeger clone?”

Dawn was thinking about it, chewing her lip, glancing at Anya – who’d apparently been so distracted by her sale that she was now re-arranging her successful candle display to more prominently show off its range. At last the decision was made. “I don’t think so,” Dawn said. “She didn’t sound like she cared, or like she was trying to. She was more no-nonsense, kinda.”

“Right,” Buffy replied, straightening her clothes in a way that felt weirdly Pavlovian. “Well, that’s helpful.” She had a feeling like now was the time to panic.

When they came home, Buffy tried not to think about the dream. It had been bothering her all day, sitting there in the back of her brain, but there had been so many people around that it hadn’t had the chance to really distract her. Now, at home, there were no Doubemeat customers, no finance papers, no women shopping for candles, so she was slightly worried the angst was coming. She also tried not to think about the fact that Spike was coming over fairly soon, if only because that would almost certainly set off more thinking about the dream, but it really didn’t go very well.

To be fair, she wasn’t exactly helped by the others. First of all, Dawn abandoned her for the kitchen, banning her quite explicitly from entering. This was possibly because something like a cake was in progress for tomorrow, as well as tonight’s dinner, which was, yeah, sweet and everything, but not very useful in occupying her time. Willow, though not closeted away anywhere, was staring the vacant stare of paper-writing into her laptop screen, headphones on her head and notebooks making modern art with water bottles. She managed to give Buffy an absent wave, but it didn’t look like there was going to be much else.

And so Buffy made the really exciting choice to go upstairs and take a shower. It went fairly well, but afterwards she found herself pulled irresistibly into a quagmire of indecision. She was standing in front of her mirror, unable to decide between an outfit that said ‘vampire, take me now (friends, there is nothing going on)’ and ‘vampire, we need to talk issues (friends, there’s really nothing going on)’. It was a really important choice. Or, well, sort of. It was distracting, at least. To be honest, both outfits were the same shirt and pants – but the latter had a camisole to thwart sheerness, and that made all the difference.

Of course, the decision was made for her when a familiar shiver ran up her still undressed back. It was kind of a habit of theirs that she would go out to meet Spike rather than him coming straight in (they’d formed a lot of habits for a single week; she had no idea whether this was good or bad), and usually they used it for secret gropes, but sometimes it was just to say hi. The problem was that you could see him out of the living room window, usually, so there was only a limited time when you got to be covert. Also, Spike tended towards impatience bordering on categorical incapacity to wait five minutes, so you couldn’t trust him to follow the rules of the habit – which was possibly more just something she liked to do? Anyway, celerity was the big-money word.

In the interests of speed, therefore, Buffy threw the sheer top over her bra and snuck-or-possibly-flew back downstairs to open the door before there was knocking, while Willow remained engrossed at the other end of the dining table.

“Hi,” she said airily, coming out onto the porch. Of course Spike was there, thankfully looking much more alive than that morning, even if the pallor mortis hadn’t suddenly gone tan.

He wasn’t surprised to see her, but he was distracted momentarily by her boobs, so at least that proved she was still proficient in the language of clothes. “Hello,” he said as he looked up, smirk definitely in place. She was caught in the twinkle of his eyes, just for a moment, but then he seemed to remember how he’d intended to greet her: he sighed, face settling immediately something more business-like. Twinkling faded generally. “Look, about this morning,” he said. “I know it’s a pipe dream, but all day I’ve been…”

“I’m sorry,” she cut him off, pretty absolutely. She was, though, and his surprise at her saying it suddenly made the feeling sharper. “I didn’t mean…” And yet, now she was sighing too, uncertain what to say, uncertain exactly what she didn’t mean.

Looking past Spike, Buffy stared into her front garden, trying to marshal her thoughts. The sun had set, which made the world look the way she most remembered it, her overgrowing lawn like a tangle of shadows and the light just above their heads not enough to let on what was lurking in every corner of the porch. The insects and the rot, you could imagine them anywhere, but you wouldn’t quite be able to see.

“I didn’t mean to wake up so bitchy,” was the explanation she decided on for Spike, in the end. Who knew how he’d take it. “It just – happened.”

Carefully he scrutinised her, tipping his head like she was a work of art. His hands were still in his pockets, but she could almost see them twitching, waiting until they could touch her again, bring their own shadows across her face. She wanted him to touch her, she was sure of it. Wasn’t she?

Shaking himself free of whatever he was feeling, Spike jerked his chin towards the door and changed the subject, placing them back firmly on familiar ground. “What’s going on in there?”

Relieved and relaxing, she replied with a shrug. “Not much,” she said. “Wills is working; Dawn’s the head chef. I’m so sous she won’t even let me in the kitchen.”

That made him snort, and it was almost like they were normal again. “Bossy little chit, your sister,” he said, still amused. “It’s a mystery who she takes after.”

Unable to resist, she shoved him on the shoulder. Lightly, definitely lightly, but a shove all the same. “Hey!” How did he get her smiling? That was the mystery. He was meant to be making her feel weird. “I’m not bossy. I’m just right.”

“Of course you are,” he patronised, rubbing the leather she’d probably bruised. It hadn’t felt that bad, touching him this time. Obviously, she’d only touched his coat and the heel of her hand had been grazing at best, but maybe she was imagining things, with the dream? Maybe it would all just wash away from her? “You have ‘right’ down to perfection,” he continued, pulling up another bubble of a smile. “Or is that righteousness?”

“Oh, you are so gonna get it…” It was a perfectly normal reaction, one she didn’t even think about, to take him by both arms and spin him back against the wall, just to the right of the doorjamb so his head rounded an inch away from the porch light. It threw every angle of his face into relief, and that was just the way she liked him, the blue fire in his eyes, the burning yellow of his hair…

It was only when she leaned up to kiss him that her eyes caught on the bones of his skull, jutting just as fiercely in the bright orange light. His jaw, his cheeks, his eye sockets, the sight of them curdled something in her gut and as their lips touched the electricity that ran through her was not the good kind. It was icy, jarring deep into her bone marrow, his lips like cold rubber against hers, not alive, not anything.

Disgusted and frightened by feeling it, Buffy leapt away from him, shuddering violently and swiping her fingers over her lips. Spike looked like she’d just staked him, like she could never have done anything worse, but there was no time to explain, no words she managed to come up with, before –

“HEY, YOU TWO,” Dawn’s yell came through the door, just as she swung it open, looking a little disappointed just to find them standing there. “Dinner’s ready.”

“Coming, niblet,” Spike said immediately, not looking at Buffy as he walked past and headed inside. Was his voice rough? It sounded rough, which made her feel terrible. His turned shoulder was definitely cold. She could do nothing but follow, however.

Inside, the dining table had been set and Willow was just finishing neatening her area, pulling all her books closer to her laptop; she smiled their way. A stubby, solitary candle was lit as a centrepiece, dripping wax onto the Trix novelty cereal bowl it was standing in, flanked by a steaming casserole dish and a salad. It actually looked like dinner, and for a moment the ache in Buffy’s chest was only in gratitude that someone else was clearly trying so very hard as she was. She actually hadn’t had to think about this meal at all.

“This looks amazing, Dawn,” she said, honestly.

“It’s my new recipe,” came the cheerful response. Buffy wanted more than anything to catch Spike’s eye at this point, but he was still hurt, looking away from her. She glanced at Willow instead, but she’d been distracted by an errant post-it note, was chewing her lip as she read it; there was only Dawn, almost too radiant as she sat down. “I call it quesaroni: like mac’n’cheese, which I made from scratch, by the way, but with extra jalapeños. And anchovies, though I guess those aren’t Mexican.”

“Anchovies?” Willow finally spoke, looking nervous as she took her seat, post-it forgotten. It was a bit like how Buffy was suddenly feeling. “Are you sure…”

Spike had apparently seen how Dawn’s face was falling, however, because he cut Willow off. “Sounds excellent. A right proper expedition through the culinary jungle.” The warning didn’t come without a glare sent Willow’s way, over Dawn’s head as she reached for the serving spoon.

That made Willow look at her, of course, since she was supposed to outrank Spike, probably. But she shook her head, which actually meant that Spike graced her with a smile for a moment. The good ship Buffy’s Mood almost rocked back to an even keel.

What that didn’t mean, however, was that she had anything to say when they were all sat down, food on their plates. Silence hung.

“You can start at any time, guys,” Dawn joked, nervously.

Summoning her courage, Buffy let her guilt push her towards actually eating, the acceptance of cheesy green lumps and black specks onto her fork and into her mouth. It went in, just about.

OK, so, it wasn’t too bad, actually. The macaroni was pretty much cooked, and there wasn’t any taste of fish apart from a slight saltiness, and that was probably a good, because Buffy had a feeling they were out of salt. The overwhelming taste, however, was the jalapeño. Definitely the jalapeño. Crap, there was more – hot, hot, hot.

Her mouth was burning through him, one kiss at a time. There was nothing to be done for it, since he was dead after all, but every kiss still felt like murder.

“Yeah,” he was moaning underneath her, “you know how to do it.” His cock was marble-cold against her cheek, her face red hot and burning at his hip, and he felt so excited, even as his flesh dissolved into liquid underneath her, as her fingertips burnt through his thigh to the femur. “God, Buffy, you know it.”

“But I don’t know how,” she told him, mouth on autopilot melting a path up his desiccating penis, which flaked like cold tinder across her tongue, causing her to gag, shudder, burn up even more with the heat she was producing.

“Yeah you do,” he said, calm and unnerved, like he knew what has happening and expected it all to go this way. She raised her head to look at his face, the eyes knocking around in his skull but looking so earnestly at her. It was like he understood everything she was, everything she could be, everything she’d been. He knew it had to go this way. “We’re both dead here,” he finally said.

And then she felt it: the burn of life inside her flared so hot that her heart stopped beating. It killed him first, of course, incinerating him into cold flame that ran across every inch of her skin – but then it killed her, explosion rushing through her chest, all the flesh he’d helped her realise was cold.

It was like déjà vu, the dream coming back to her, only when she snapped out of it she realised she was standing up at their dining table, fork clattering on her plate, cold sweat running out across her skin, all of her. Dawn, Willow and Spike were all staring.

“Uh…” she began, uncertain what to say. Dawn looked like she was preparing for rejection; Spike’s eyes were narrowing, suspicious. “I was just thinking we need water. Anyone else want water? Water?”

She looked around, but got nothing. Willow had her latest bottle by her side anyway.

“There’s soda,” Dawn said, the words brittle. Her fork was in her hand like a weapon, like she was ready to defend herself against Buffy’s actualcriticism. Of course, Buffy had completely forgotten the taste of the food in place of the imagined taste of Spike’s dissolving man-thing, but she wasnot going to be sharing that any time soon.

“Um, yeah, right,” she managed, almost sitting down but deciding instead on picking up her glass, going with the cover story. “The thing is, I think I’ve developed sodaphobia. The machine at work…” No one was buying it, and now she was panicking, eyes drifting unavoidably to the kitchen where there would be water, aloneness, a place to break a little and pull herself back together. Be normal again so everyone could see that she was, normally. “I’m just gonna go.”

She let her legs carry her away, hating the burn in her cheeks and throwing herself towards the kitchen, even as Dawn started murmuring to Spike.

It only took a couple of seconds to fill her glass from the tap, but it took much longer to drink. The cold water was almost too much against her throat, too different from how hot she was, and she needed to breathe, almost continuously around gulps, not timing anything right. Shaking, she stood there, leaning on the counter and waiting until she calmed down, staring at the ghost-like image of her face in the window glass.

It wasn’t that bad, she tried to tell herself; it was only a dream. No matter how prophetic and truthful Dream Spike’s words had seemed, it was hardly out of character for Spike to randomly expound on things he knew nothing about, in dreams or in reality. And clearly nothing like what had happened was really going to happen, because she would have realised she had the ability to burn through vamps with her touch way before now, even (if not especially) if it only happened in bed because of the hormones or whatever. And if that part had been surreal, enough that it wasn’t even real, why did the conversation have to be accurate?

As the pounding in her ears subsided, however, Buffy could hear the others talking, and that wasn’t a conversation she could ignore. Even if she couldn’t quite make it all out, there was far too many mentions of her name, and too much scorn.

“…up with her?” she thought she heard Dawn say.

And Willow was saying back, ”I thought she was better now.”

She didn’t mean any harm by it, Buffy was sure about that. But Willow had always had the talent to get right to the heart of a problem, right away – and then poke at it whether that was welcome or not.

Wasn’t she better now? In terms of measurable criteria, Buffy had actually thought she was doing OK: in a twenty-four hour period, she might have a bad dream, but then there would probably only be one. She hadn’t cried at work at all over the last week, and she’d got food in the house, cleaned the bathroom. How was that not better?

But then, she thought, fingers clutching the warming weight of her glass as she placed it in the sink, there was this. Stuff with Spike had been pretty good, all told, and she could fit him in way better when she didn’t have to include the time it took to run across town – and she had her alarm clock now, helping her stay in control. Never knock the clock. But her attempts at incorporating Spike into the Scoobies wasn’t really working, and he was only ever around for awkward half-hours, and now it was like the awkwardness there was seeping into some sort of weird psychosexual freak-out. Which was just what she didn’t need.

The only explanation or trigger, maybe, that she could think of – for the dream, since it was pretty obvious what the dream was doing – was the dead girl they’d found on patrol. But that had been a week ago, at the same time that everything had gone better, so unless it had been brewing in some really unhealthy-type way, she had no idea how to explain it.

Sometimes she did wonder, however, if she was really honest with herself, whether they wouldn’t have been able to save her if they hadn’t been LA. The time demons, they’d screwed things around, and she’d obviously been dead since probably the night before they’d found her, but if they’d been patrolling the night she’d died, maybe they’d have got to her in time.

It was stupid, wasn’t it, to think that? She’d been in such a good place when they’d gone out; everything had seemed really clear, but what had she been doing shirking, really? What had she been doing?

Her life was never going to get back on track, not when she mismanaged time so badly.

She was staring the glass in the sink, Buffy realised now, staring hard so her eyes couldn’t form tears. Concentric circles filled her vision, the rim of the glass leading to the base, the silver steel underneath and she couldn’t see her face, only a vague sense of light reflected, behind the glass. Why did it have to be so hard? she wondered, gripping with her fingertips, watching the pressure bleach her skin in white ovals. She was only one person, so the way things were it was like she wasn’t meant to take any time at all to live her life. In real terms, they’d been away for barely anytime, and yet, and yet –

Quite suddenly, but unsurprisingly in retrospect, the glass cracked. Shards fissured over her knuckles, the highball’s height slumping over the back of her palm, cutting painlessly. Surprise drew the smallest cry up and out of her throat.

That surprise, however, kept her staring as the thin cut’s pain started to burn and an edge-line of red formed between her thumb and index finger. She wasn’t sure how to move, so didn’t, just stood there, breathing.

It was moments before the tell-tale sound of boots treaded into the kitchen.

Initially he paused, standing probably a few feet behind her, almost certainly catching scent of the blood. He was still hurt from before, he had to be, so he was probably watching and waiting for her, trying to figure out what had happened. She didn’t know what to say, but she was sure they were both listening to the sound of her blood, dripping and rapping like rain.

In the end, Spike cracked first. “For fuck’s sake – here,” he said, dashing over the last few footsteps, freezing for a moment as his touch made her jump, but then carrying on: one arm arced over hers to pluck away the larger pieces of glass, then to turn the tap on low and, business-like, sluice the smaller fragments gently from her skin. The glassy water flushed down the drain, probably to cause her problems somewhere down the line, but for the moment just away.

She wanted to turn her head, see his face, but she couldn’t quite trust herself to it. Instead she let him get on with everything, use the last piece of kitchen towel to dry her off then spin some surgical tape around a dressing on her hand. Not that it was bleeding anymore, even with the water, but Spike was a finisher, so he finished, grumbling under his breath the whole time. She kept her mouth shut.

Eventually he was done, smoothing his thumb over her right hand – where it was actually comforting, the wholesome barrier of First Aid between them.

“Now,” he said bluntly, stilling his movement, done with the distraction and calmed by it. Bully for him. “This is the part where you tell me what the bloody hell is going on.”

Raising her eyes, she tried to think of an answer, but, honestly, wasn’t entirely sure she had one to give. As usual, her head was a mess and, as usual, he wasn’t helping, being nice when clearly her insides had decided he just enabled her deadness.

“What’s happened to you today?” he asked, looking at her, a little desperate by the sound of it. “You’ve gone… I don’t even know what or where or how you’ve gone, but it’s somewhere.”

She sighed, trying to pull any sort of strength she still had back inside her. That morning she’d said they could talk about now, she supposed, but she didn’t quite know what she’d been thinking. Earlier was better, definitely; now her feet were aching and her mind had switched off. Any other day she’d be attempting to get straight to the physical comfort part of the evening, but now she was not only mildly repulsed by the idea, when it came down to it, but she also had to explain the whole thing. To Spike. Who thought sex was the sixth sense.

Taking a breath, she risked the risk, shut her eyes and tipped forward, dropping her head to his shoulder and the musky-yum smell of tobacco-leather. It was almost ridiculous enough to make her laugh, how warm his clothes smelled compared to how cold he felt, and that was before the irony that her forehead was apparently entirely fine making contact with dead cow. Tanning, that was definitely the answer.

“I had a dream,” she told him, rocking back after she’d taken a long, deep whiff for safekeeping.

There were post-mortem tension lines around his mouth, across his forehead, but he still raised an eyebrow. “Was it about slayers and vamps living in perfect harmony?” He’d put his hands on her belt, she realised; she could feel it when he fidgeted. More dead cow coming to rescue, it seemed. “Because, hate to break it to you, love, but I don’t think it’ll catch on…”

“What?” she asked, blinking, finally actually listening to what he was saying. “No! Pay attention.” (It didn’t count as transference when he was meant to be doing it too.) “You’re gonna think it’s important.” OK, maybe ‘important’ wasn’t the right word, but she had a feeling he was going to think something.

Backing away, Spike put on what she bet he thought of as his ‘serious’ expression. It was mostly more frowning. “Right. Fine. Go on.”

For a moment she waited, listening to the murmur of Willow and Dawn still talking in the dining room, the whir of a fly or something killing itself on the light fitting. She almost expected him to fill the silence for her, but she’d forgotten that he actually had the capacity to shut up when he wanted to hear her talk.

“OK, so, I had this dream,” she repeated, dropping her eyes and trying to find her way through it. No way to put it off anymore. “And it was all cringey subconscious stuff, coffins enlarging into crypts, dresses turning into sheets, moody softcore getting, you know, less – and you were there, obviously.” Glancing up, she checked to make sure he didn’t think she was having sex dreams without him, because she’d never really been wired that way and that sort of crisis was the last thing she needed. The gleam in his eye made her think she was probably OK. “But that was when it got weird. Like, horror movie weird.” She didn’t look back down at this point, because it was important he understood this part, otherwise the rest wasn’t going to come over well. “I felt like I was burning up, or you were cooling down, or something, and it all became really obvious that you were dead and I was way too alive; I think in the dream body temperature was the main sort of alive we were talking, because you didn’t suck it up like usual, you just… Melted. Burned up. When I was, um…”

Blushing, she really didn’t want to spell out the specifics of what had been happening. Dawn and Willow were only a room away, after all. Spike was smirking, though, so it was all right: he looked like he was getting a mental picture, even if was probably a lot more pleasant than hers, and probably came with mood lighting and some good sex music.

Not quite able to keep her voice free of accusation, she continued, “And you, you were lying there, telling me to keep going! And –”

“I was probably having a good time,” he interjected, biting his tongue until she glared. “Sorry,” he said, not contrite. “Carry on.”

Lowering her voice again, she tried to not let things run together. “Yeah, that was it,” she remembered, “you told me to carry on and said I knew what I was doing because we were both, well, dead.” He actually looked more contrite now, and she was grateful for it, because retelling this whole thing was bumming her out. “That was basically the end, but then I burned you up all the way, and that happened to burn me all up as well, because I was dead too. Cue horrible sweaty wake-up moment. Cue shakiness. Cue awkward jalapeño-inspired flashback. And…” She swallowed, treading delicately. “Cue, uh, minor problems when I feel like we’re getting, um – intimate.”

Spike’s eyes went wide as he got it. If no other part of her story had gone in, that part certainly had. And, sure, he wasn’t actually an evil sex fiend and she did feel bad sometimes for thinking about him that way too often for it to keep its jokiness, but it was times like these that he made it easy.

“There’s no reason to look that freaked out, you know,” she told him, feeling suddenly quite self-conscious that she’d warn such a come-on top. He continued to say nothing; she crossed her arms over her chest. He wasn’t expecting something this evening, was he? Sure, he’d probably beenanticipating something, because she sure as hell would have been, but expectation was different and, now that she was thinking about it, staring at his chest that obviously wasn’t going to move as he thought things through, she shouldn’t have said anything, should she?

Suddenly, then, he started talking, and it took her a moment to realise what he’d said. “Does this mean I’m in your house, then, eating with you and that, even though you have absolutely no intent to shag me?”

Internally, she winced. (Never date soulless vampires, she vowed, they’re like bastards on bad days.) Externally, she got angry, jerking up her chin to give him a piece of her fucking mind, complete with articulate, emasculating reasons why he was nothing more than the scum she’d Lysoled from the toilet bowl and, and –

– why was he looking at her with stars in his eyes, again?

Replaying his sentence in her mind, she realised he hadn’t actually added the fuck that shit she could have sworn she’d heard a few seconds ago. With her insides softening into one big Buffy-shaped blob of jelly, she couldn’t help but tell him, “God, Spike, you are so weird.” Although, actually, it was possible that she was still slightly offended. “No,” she explained, more exasperated than gooey pretty quickly, “I’m not expecting any sexual favours for letting you hang out in my house. Or in my kitchen. Where we’ve been way too long.”

Spike was still lost in his own little world, so, when the doorbell rang, inconveniently but inevitably, she rolled her eyes and fully prepared to let him carry on daydreaming or whatever he was doing. Intellectually, she knew she was relieved that he’d taken things so well, but the actual feeling was more like one tiny onion layer of stress had been removed only to reveal another layer underneath it. Currently that was manifesting as worry over who was at the door, and whether it was going to be social services who would think she was a hussy just because she’d worn some of her actually still nice clothes from the old days – and, yes, she’d felt the shame a couple of moments ago, but wasn’t there a thing where she wasn’t supposed to feel that? And, anyway, that was in the private context between her and Spike and the way they communicated (open shirt meant he was ready to be ravaged; closed shirt meant he wanted to hear about her day – it was a code)…

Before she could take two steps towards the hall, however, Dawn’s voice was ringing out, ”I’LL GET IT!” and Spike’s hand was reaching out, gingerly touching her shoulder. “Wait,” he said, sounding far more grown up than she usually expected him to.

So she did wait, looking back at him and the slight, constructive worry on his face. “I don’t know if it’ll go away,” she told him quickly, not sure if he’d gathered that from her rambling.

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied, just as swiftly. “I can be noble, you know. Gallant and all that.” There was joke mixed in with the serious there, and it had her smiling, actually feeling some of the lightness of her relief. “It’s true,” he tried to convince her, now definitely exaggerating. “There was no touching of ladies in my day, you know, none of this business in alleyways you’re so fond of.”

“Yeah right,” she scoffed, totally not believing him and the way he’d started to grin. “I bet you –”

”BUFFY, IT’S for…”

The talking, maybe the flirting that had leaked out, that stopped the moment Dawn’s yelling trailed off into uncertainty. With a look that made certain they were agreed, they rushed into the hall, where Buffy was immediately checking to see that Dawn was still standing unkidnapped.

She was. But that didn’t seem to mean that everything was OK; her face was full of fear. “She called yesterday,” Dawn began hopelessly, looking to the doorway.

Standing there, Buffy now saw, was the candle woman from the Magic Box, suit blazer still the same with crisp cut seams. They were shown off pretty well by the way her hand was raised, showing off her police badge for inspection.

“Buffy Summers?” she asked. “My name’s Detective Lockley. I’m investigating the death of Katrina Silber and was hoping to ask you a few questions.”


[Chapter Two: Look at Them.]

Originally posted at