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

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And this is all of it! The last chapter’s a bit of a monster…

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.

[Chapter One: Don’t Close Your Eyes.]
[Chapter Two: Look at Them.]


Chapter Three: That’s Not Your World.

Things took a little while to get going, it had to be said. In most ways it was probably easier in the dark, because even if he likely could see how she grimaced when she first touched his face, she couldn’t tell how he looked watching her, and they could both pretend it didn’t happen. In some ways it was harder, naturally: movements came out of nowhere, surprising her too thoroughly sometimes, freezing up any progress so they had to start again. She apologised, feeling it, but Spike didn’t actually seem to mind the challenge. Not that she wondered why.

Eventually they were back to where they’d been in the light, lying on their sides facing in – even if they were both under the covers now. “Right,” Buffy whispered, hearing his breathing, feeling hers, tense in her entire lower half and certain they were getting somewhere. “Let’s try again…”

Gingerly, she reached out her left hand, bringing it to rest on his shoulder. That was fine, she could do that. It felt comfortable, even, enough to make her smile. The only problem was leaving there, going down his chest and spreading her fingers across his pecs. There, Spike’s muscles flexed underneath her, couldn’t help it of course, and it was like she was touching up some sort of silicon-coated machine, convincing herself it was real.

But it was real, she remembered. His breathing was harder, laboured as she brushed his nipple, and that was her doing, not a programmed response. There was scar tissue on his chest, like there was on him everywhere, and she knew he wouldn’t react this way to an enemy, to someone he felt nothing for. He wasn’t just a corpse; he breathed. And it was that sound she focused on, those gasps she seized to wall up her disquiet.

Moving down, surer, trying to be confident, she was struck by the thought that had she’d been trying to ignore all day. Namely why was his lack of body temperature really getting to her so much? There were billions of sex toys in the world, some of them built by murderous nerds to look and sound like a human body, but they were all inanimate, all of them room temperature, needing to be warmed; why was this so different? It would be easy, you’d have thought, especially with the soundtrack, which was getting louder now. Couldn’t she just imagine…?

No. The answer came immediately as Spike played his part in the proceedings: deftly his right hand ran across her knee, drifting up her bare leg, past her hip. It was electric, at this stage wholly good, and then he went further, leaning in so he could reach up her back.

He was closer now, and the combination of his cold hand and cold breath made her shiver. This was as far as they’d managed to get before, the place they’d worked towards and where her upset nevertheless became stronger than her enjoyment. Because this was the moment she had to realise, didn’t she, that as much of death that was in him, there was life. He wasn’t a toy, no matter how he’d treated him, and he wasn’t just dead, the way she’d probably have quite liked him to be; he was right there with her, strange and foreign to the natural world, living in it, just about, and touching her.

“You all right, pet?” he asked, his voice so very close to her mouth.

This was such a basic clinch, even in slow-mo, but she was beyond being ashamed for having to learn it afresh. “Yeah, I think so,” she said, feeling every fraction of his handprint across her spine. Did that have to be a bad thing? Maybe she liked it, weird though it was. There were decades in that hand, a thousand skills; maybe that could be kind of cool? “I think…”

Keeping her hand strong and frowning with the concentration required, she let her fingers spread down lower, across Spike’s rapidly contracting belly. She waited there a moment, letting herself get used to the sensation, the idea of him, and then she went for where she’d destroyed in her dream. His thigh, solid as anything – but then it had been at first – rose up to meet her touch and she squeezed it, not yet feeling softness, not yet feeling rot. In fact, she didn’t feel anything of them at all as she stayed there; she could press into the flesh, feel it resist against fingers, less disgusting the more real it seemed.

“Buffy, love, please,” Spike groand, sounding tortured, reminding her of how much he enlivened this limb. She laughed as his fingers clutched against her back, and she felt terribly in control, terribly turned on, and mostly ready to try her luck.

Biting her bottom lip once, she leaned in the last two inches, not moving her hand from his reassuring thigh but letting her lips touch his. Lips were sensitive, and immediately and abruptly she could feel what she’d felt earlier in the evening, the coolness, the deadness – but it was different this time. Maybe because she was relaxing or maybe because he was on the edge of desperation (she had been feeling him up for, what, half an hour?), but she could feel so much of him as he sank against her. Everything he wanted, everything he hoped for, everything he believed she could give him, it was all there. All the feelings that brought him to life were unavoidably apparent, like currents running over her skin, even if the actual expression came in gulping, silent cries against her mouth.

“Tell me – feel good,” he begged her after a moment, barely coherent as his forehead pressed up to hers. His hand was inching a new path, fingers teasing ribs like he wanted to find the front of her – not that she could blame him; her own hand was daring further, curling to his softer, cooler skin. It made him moan. “Gotta tell me, or –”

“Keep going,” she told him, in no uncertain terms, feeling like the bubble of worry inside her was shrinking the warmer she became, as she became hot enough not to perceive how different he was. Maybe that was cheating, but as his mouth fell back on hers and his errant thumb crept in, swept a crescent of sensation, she didn’t care.

When she took his cock in hand, it was like meeting an old, familiar friend. Definitely not marble-cold like her dream, even if it wasn’t exactly hot: the veins were all close to the skin and they were engorged enough for a great time, pulling in their blood through some sort of force, expending energy while they did it. She gasped and, of course, the thing took her hand like she loved it. As she explored, her heat came back to her, reflecting, morphing into firmness that resisted her more fully. “Hey presto,” Buffy thought, only to realise she was murmuring it against Spike’s mouth, pretty much in awe. “No disintegration.”

“We try our best,” Spike choked, sounding aggrieved, before taking the initiative to knock her over to her back. It was a good call – a really good call. The shift let their trapped arms free and she was more than happy to find new fingers running into her hair, kissing him harder as his hand framed her face. All the tingles that brought, they were good tingles, excellent – and when his other hand wandered lower, raising sweat, it felt perfectly reasonable to get out of his way. She sent both of her palms up his back, coasting for shoulder blades.

Her reactions were getting basically unconscious now, the panic of before swallowed up back inside. She didn’t even realise when her nails dug in, a response to his sweep between her legs, fingertips and knuckles making sure everything was OK. What she did realise, however, for entirely different reasons, was when his middle finger flicked up, took aim and pushed. That was the moment when she pulled herself up against him, cleaving eight perfect scratches high by his spine.

They slammed against the bed, unstable, winded to a gasp as one. He bit her tongue, but it didn’t really hurt, not like her scratches had to be hurting.

“Shit,” she hissed, trying to apologise. She was still clutching him, first in an attempt to keep the blood inside – but then because two fingers dug in further, curling and twisting her tight. “Shit, Spike…”

“Fuck it,” he implored her, kissing her jaw, finding rhythm (at last). She could feel his blood on her fingers, and yet he was whispering, “You worry too much, love.” Breath was breaking up the words, but he kept telling her, sliding around her lower body so his hand had room to move, “Can feel it in you, the way you hold yourself back.” Buffy found herself moaning again, sucking his neck – he’d settled over her thigh, crushed his dick and her breasts between them, but that just meant she could feel everything, every twitch, every sigh of his nerves, the full spectrum from his soft hand at her temple to the other, irreverent fingers, stoking her to full thrash. “You’re screaming to get out, love, can’t you hear it? Can’t you hear? Fuck, love, the sound of you…”

She never knew quite what he was smoking at these moments. Possibly it was a supersenses thing, with him getting off on the sound her heart racing nought to sixty in under ten seconds, and that wouldn’t surprise her. That would be just like him, in fact. Unfortunately, however, it was completely impossible to express her dislike at being compared to a car right at this moment, because his skin was in his mouth and she had a very definite need to clamp her teeth down on his shoulder. Which she did.

It wasn’t enough, though, not to relieve the tension. Her free leg started thumping the mattress, pulling him into the evilest chortle ever. She bit down harder, trying to stop it, squeezing her eyes shut.

Buffy knew this dead flesh on her tongue could feel pain, but its owner seemed OK with that: Spike felt more solid than ever at that moment, tensing and jerking towards her mouth, every erogenous nerve between them striking off in some violent chord. The explosion, when it came, almost certainly to make her cringe at the old dream’s symbolism, was more than enough to let her kill Spike first. He always liked her letting go, so the combination of teeth, nails and her foot flailing in to smash a heel behind his knee knocked him flat, roar choking like a sob in his throat. That sound, that good sound, combined with the sudden absence of motion, that was more than enough to set her off too.

The blackness of her room fell to silence. Not the silence she’d expected to sleep in and, honestly, not silence at all. If they’d been dead there would have been nothing, no sound, but as it was the air was filled with deep, wheezing breaths; pain, pleasure, ecstasy, fear and a dozen other unspoken feelings drifting into the night around them. Still, as silences went, it worked for her.

“So,” Spike gasped after a while, just as she carefully unclamped her jaw. “How d’you feel?”

She snorted, nudging him so she could sit up a bit. And breathe. “Hmm,” she said when there was air to do so, reaching out to turn on the bedside lamp. Whoa. “OK, I guess.” Rapidly she blinked against the fierceness of the light.

By her side, Spike was lounging indolently, every inch of his body on display now that the covers had gone. She’d smeared thin stains of red all round his shoulders, left a trail of deepening hickeys to full-on teeth marks, but he was grinning like she was the best thing he’d ever seen. “You bloody liar!” he exclaimed, absently sucking off his fingers. “I had you fucking – paralytic!

OK, she couldn’t help it; a smirk spread out across her face. Still, she shrugged, gesturing to her stomach and hoping he wouldn’t notice that she was glowing like a Christmas tree. “Yeah,” she said, the frissons of sensation in her tongue feeling nothing but good right now, “but I think we can both see who got off with an embarrassing lack of help.” This was the point, however, to reach for a tissue, which she did.

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong,” he said, gesturing for the pass so he could clean himself up. She did it for him instead, grabbing an alcohol wipe for his shoulders as well. “First of all –” He flinched as she swiped at him, but mostly put up with it. “I had help.” On his stomach, though, he was ticklish, so she swiped harder, threw the tissues over him so she could poke properly with her fingers. “Second of all –” Now he was trying to bat her away, wriggling as she giggled until he’d had enough and grabbed her wrists, pinned them above her head. “Second of all,” he repeated, mock-exasperated even as his cock was on the rise again, “a gentleman feels no embarrassment so long as his lady’s needs are met.”

Aww… she almost wanted to say, catching on. She gave up, smile turning sappy as she gazed up at his earnest face.. She knew full well this precise predicament made her more prone to gooiness than usual, but that was sweet, wasn’t it? It made her want to say really nice things.

Thankfully he winked, saving her the trouble. God, it was so hard not to think he was real now, much harder than it had ever been easy before. “See,” he said, grinning through his teeth, eyes too bright with victory. “I told you I could be gallant.”

If this was gallantry, she thought as Spike started fumbling behind her mattress (“Now, where did I put those scarves?”), there was definitely something to be said for it.

On her twenty-first birthday, Buffy woke up feeling almost wholly good about the morning. Looking at the alarm clock, prominent on her bedside table, it was before Dawn left for school, even, and she was awake and feeling breezy, so she got up to go and see her. Practically like a proper guardian, she thought. Spike was definitely asleep by her side, face down against the pillow, but that was OK, she told herself, blissfully dream-free today. She put on pyjamas and a dressing gown, tucked him in and kissed him on the check before she left, figuring she could untie his wrists from the bedframe later.

Dawn looked surprised to see her in the kitchen, glancing up guiltily from where she was finishing some math with a glass of OJ. “Oh, um, hey, Buffy!” she said, apparently torn between happiness and embarrassment – until she remembered. “I mean, happy birthday! Yay! Twenty-one!” Then she gushed, math forgotten, “Wow, you can drink and stuff! How does it feel? No more demon bars for you, right?”

Ready to be happy today, Buffy laughed, starting to move around the kitchen island. “Yep, that’s the plan!” How did Dawn know about the demon bars, anyway? Oh, right, she’d had a shift of hair-holding duty that particular night… Trying to forget that particular catastrophe by avoiding Dawn’s eyes, Buffy found herself by the stove. “Hey, d’you want some eggs?” she asked. “We’ve got eggs.” There was no need to mention she was starving.

“Sure,” Dawn replied, before continuing with her theme, semi-jokingly (Buffy hoped), “You should go somewhere. With Spike or something – like, somewhere cool. Not the Bronze. You should… Ooh!” she squealed. “Oh, you should do karaoke!” OK, Buffy wondered, where the hell did Dawn get these ideas from? Karaoke? “Can you imagine Spike with karaoke?” she continued. Actually, now that Dawn mentioned it… “He’d be so awesome. You could make him do Billy Idol!”

“I’m not sure he’d go for that,” Buffy finally replied, barely holding in laughter as she egged. “Though I’m so with you on the potential.” Seriously, Billy Idol was inspired. She knew Spike hated him (‘because the bastard stole my sodding look, made it cheap as fucking dishwater; let the Contingent down, selling out with that MTV bollocks’ – whatever the hell that pile of random was supposed to mean), but it would amuse the hell out of her. And, ooh, he could do that thing where he sang lyrics at her and their eyes met across the room, couldn’t he? With the lights dimming and everyone clearing a path when he jumped off the stage. Probably she’d hate that sort of cheese if it actually happened, but in her fantasy there was a convenient trapdoor that dropped them straight back in her room and…

“Hellooo?” Dawn was saying, far, far too knowingly. “Earth to Buffy?”

Sternly, Buffy shook herself, looking down to see her minidress transform back into PJs. OK, she was seriously spacey this morning. And not the way she usually was either.

Sighing, she flicked some oil at her sunnysides. “You know he’d never do it,” she lamented. “Anyway –” Turning her head over her shoulder, Buffy nodded at the math not being done. “What’s with the homework?” she asked, being responsible. “I thought you were finished up yesterday?”

Squirming, Dawn held her pen more studiously over the page. “I’m almost done – it’s only three problems and they aren’t so hard.”

The practical part of Buffy’s brain reminded her that she’d used to do ten problems in the recess before class, so this wasn’t a big deal. She’d had Willow’s help and the answers, but it wasn’t a big deal. Unfortunately, the panicky part of her brain panicked. “But you’re gonna have eggs in a minute!” The whites were getting all solid and bubbly: she was Buffy, Egg Queen! As long as she didn’t burn them. “And – and – what period is math?”

“Fifth,” Dawn replied, looking at her like was seriously uncool. “It’s gonna be fine, Buffy. In fact –” She shut her notebook defiantly, clearing a space on the table. Buffy remembered how much she’d wanted to share a meal the night before. “I declare this a homework-free zone. It is now an egg zone. A birthdayified egg zone.” An adamant Dawn was strangely terrifying to behold. “I’ll get the bread.”

Buffy watched as Dawn hopped down from her stool, amused as she marched to the bread bin with an ‘aha!’ of victory, continuing to find some plates. However, this had the unfortunate effect that neither of them noticed when Willow appeared in the doorway.

“Um, hey, guys,” she said, sounding ever so slightly shellshocked.

Initially Buffy didn’t turn around, because her eggs were hissing at her. Throwing a ‘hey, Will!’ out into the kitchen she kept flicking, letting Dawn take over social management duties.

“Hey, Willow,” Dawn said, doing pretty well. Although it sounded like she’d started eating the bread already (and a glance confirmed that this indeed was true).

It wasn’t enough of a faux pas, however, to legitimate Willow’s strangely unstable response. “Oh, uh, hey, Dawn,” she said. “I, um, I heard cooking and thought you might be… Buffy, hey!” She suddenly changed register to super bright, inviting Buffy to flash a smile at her briefly. “Happy birthday! Uh…” Then the brightness faded. “I was gonna… Dawn, do you wanna, I mean, I dunno…”

“What?” Dawn asked, unassuming and still munching bread.

Buffy was just taking the eggs off the stove when Willow said it. “Buffy, I, uh, I went into your room to see if you wanted…”

Oh, fuck.

Spinning around, skillet still in hand, Buffy stared at her. How could they have been so careless? Apart from the obvious reasons. Although – Willow looked shocked, but mostly embarrassed, processing. Was that good? Bad? Blushing scarlet, Buffy remembered the state she must have found him in.

“I don’t think he was expecting me,” Willow continued, in a pretty clear understatement.

“Oh my god.” Dawn got it far, far, far too quickly. “Did Spike stay over?” She sounded scandalised, which made Buffy wince, but then she sounded excited, which was probably worse. “Where is he? Why hasn’t he come down? He should have eggs too!”

“Willow,” Buffy said, then put the frying pan on the table mat, removing all sources of boiling oil from her shaking hands. “I was gonna tell you…”

“Sure!” Willow said brightly, smiling as if she was covering up a big pile of crushed, which just made Buffy feel bad. “I mean, it’s not, it doesn’t…” Her expression sloped into mournful. “Dawn knew about it already?”

“Dawn found out,” Buffy emphasised, throwing a sister a glare where she was still eating bread. “It wasn’t like a, a selection process or – she’s really nosy!”

“Hey!” Dawn interjected, sounding put out. Buffy winced again.

“Are you really mad?” she continued, turning back to Willow, deciding she was the more dangerous one here. This was reparable, wasn’t it? It didn’t have to be catastrophic. Did it? “I didn’t mean…”

“No, no,” Willow said, apparently trying to be reassuring, putting on a watery smile. It was that smile that reminded Buffy how hard everything was in the real world, and made her pretty much want to get out and go back to not thinking about it. See – stability, that was nice. This was why she hadn’t wanted to tell in the first place. This is why she didn’t want to change things! Then of course Willow continued, “I guess it’s just… I dunno, I mean, I would have liked to know, is all. I knew he was around, but I didn’t know he was – and, I mean, with your party and everything…” She started blushing, and Buffy had an entirely new sense of unease as the babble turned panicky, “It’s just that we thought… We wouldn’t have done it if we’d known! But now he’s gonna feel really awkward and Xander’ll need to tell him…”

“Willow,” Buffy asked suspiciously, cutting her off, “what are you talking about?”

“Your not-a-date! “ she exclaimed. Buffy’s mouth dropped open (some spit may have spat). And then Willow carried on, “We thought it’d be nice, you know, with Xander and Anya and – and you said you wanted Tara to come, so… You were saying you felt like a – he seems really nice!” At Buffy’s stare, Willow started looking around the kitchen, taking in all the cabinets and junk. “There wasn’t gonna be any pressure, but we thought maybe you’d like to meet each other, hence the not-a-date title, and we organised it, and I’ve forgotten his name, exactly, but it’s not really important, I guess, but it would have been nice to have known, you know?”

Buffy did not know. And she was not impressed. And now she had some random guy coming to her house for her birthday? “You got me a blinddate?” she shouted, before dropping her voice again. “For my birthday?” This was so, so so so much more important than the Spike thing. They were clearing this up now. “What was this guy gonna do when he got here? What the f…” Oh, wait, no swearing; Dawn was here. Eyebrow raised like everyone apart from her was deeply stupid. “What was I supposed to say when he turned up?” Buffy continued. “Oh, hey, random guy, how d’you like them apples?”

“I don’t know!” Willow replied, throwing up her hands. “You could have just talked – like people do! It’s not like we knew you were keeping a pet vampire tied to the bed.”

Bristling on the word ‘pet’, Buffy snapped back, “That is so unfair, Willow.” Her hands slammed down on the table, sounding her frustration. “And don’t you dare –”

“Wait, you tie him up?”

“– talk about him like…”

Buffy trailed off, turning redder as Dawn’s question still echoed. Her sister looked aghast, but actually kind of impressed, which was probably the weirdest and scariest sight that Buffy had ever seen. She actively, positively wished in that moment that the Hellmouth would swallow them whole.

Was it too late to pretend like Willow was joking?

And that was the moment, of course, that Spike chose to arrive. Apparently thinking the answer was ‘yes’.

“Morning, ladies,” he carolled in a voice that expressed nothing other than panic, swinging through the kitchen door. He was dressed, but out of breath, sounding more like he’d run a marathon than climbed out of bed. It didn’t lend him much authenticity. “Buffy,” he began before he caught himself, “I mean, the, er, Slayer and I, we were running an experiment, yeah? Looking at the house for – options. Security, you know, in case you need to keep a demon… Incapacitated, right, in an emergency and – It’s all very proper and; sorry I took you by surprise there, Red, but, er, no harm done? Know it looked a mite dodgy…”

All Buffy could do was stare at him, wondering how on earth he expected that story to convince anyone, let alone Willow – who, you had to face it, was pretty smart – and then Dawn, who knew they were seeing each other.

“Spike.” Willow broke the silence, looking like she believed even less. “You called me sweetheart.”

Now Buffy couldn’t help it; she burst out laughing, certain it was that or crying and mostly happy with the option she picked. Sweetheart. He never called her that unless he was being sarcastic, so who even knew what he’d said to Willow, but it had almost certainly been violently inappropriate. He definitely seemed embarrassed. “I give you Spike, everybody,” she said, gesturing towards him and throwing on her favourite MC voice. Willow and Dawn both had their eyebrows raised, but she didn’t particularly care. “This master of disguise will tonight be playing the part of my boyfriend.” Didn’t anyone else find that funny? She found it kind of hilarious. “He may also be him as well.”

In the silence, it was pretty hard to say who looked more shocked, Willow or Spike. On both it was a nice sort of shocked, though. Willow, for her part, looked like she’d been expecting a massive load more excuses and obfuscation, while Spike just looked like when she fingered him.

Thankfully there was still Dawn, hovering by the abandoned eggs and testing to see if she could pick them out by hand. “Great,” she smartassed in the end, finding a utensil and flipping the rounds out onto a plate. Buffy wondered if being twenty-one meant she was allowed to admire the resilience of youth, especially as Dawn continued, looking up and nodding to the table, “Can we eat now?”

The next couple of hours before work actually went OK. Dawn got off to school on time, even gave her a hug and an extra happy birthday before she went, yelling at Spike that he was in no way ever allowed to use her Sleek’n’Shine shampoo-conditioner. It sounded almost like acceptance, but Buffy wasn’t about to push her luck. Nor generally did she plan to make Dawn aware of the fact when Spike was sleeping there; it would be too weird to have him in her room knowing that Dawn knew (sort of) what they were doing. Also Willow.

And thinking of Willow, she’d actually changed her schedule for them, which was nice. After the eggs she jumped straight in the shower, getting ready and out the door much earlier than she usually did, ‘to give them space’. Buffy hoped that didn’t mean that she was too squicked to be in the same house as them, because that would get real old, real fast. But she did leave very quickly, so…

All in all, Buffy’s morning held up. She hadn’t burnt the eggs, and when she dragged Spike into the bathroom there was even enough hot water for the two of them – and on top of that, she discovered that getting a sudsy head massage from someone sucked off to a desperate, Buffy-brought brink was the best way to de-stress ever. Mutual towelling off was also a lot more fun than she remembered; it had to be something about height ratios. Not a bad celebration for the end of her blip. Nor her birthday.

Of course, it had to end. “So, you gonna take that job, then?” Spike asked her eventually, unsurprisingly as she covered up a nice, flattering tank top with Doublemeat polyester. He was sat back on her bed like he owned it, towel just about draped across his hips, and she had half a mind to join him. If only to prove who was boss. Obviously she realised that he was essentially stuck here, so she didn’t overly mind him taking up residence, but she still wasn’t quite sure where the dog-eared hardback had come from, poking out of the pillow behind him. He was nesting. It was weird. “Seems to me that if you took it,” he tempted, hand on his chest, “if you worked nights and that, you wouldn’t have to be leaving right now…”

“You…” She’d told him this, hadn’t she? Laid it out all nice and clear? “Look,” she began, throwing on some earrings, just because it was her birthday. “Don’t think you can tell me what to do, even if the rest of the gang do know about you.” Then she sighed, eyes on her mirror, annoyed that he wasn’t there for her to glare at. Thankfully that was easily solved by turning around. “I told you,” she continued, not especially feeling it but saying it all the same. “There’s balance and stuff. Careful balancing things. Dawn and Willow and bills and – food. I can’t just get a new job, straight like that.”

“Sure you can,” he replied, shrugging. “What’s stopping you?”

“Things!” she repeated, throwing her hands wide. “There’s always things – like, when you said I could move house, Dawn looked into it and there were things. Problems and stuff. And it’ll be the same with this – there’ll be obstacles. And then I’ll just end up back at the DMP on a worse payscale and with Lorraine breathing down my neck.”

He seemed to take the information in his stride at least, scratching his shoulder scabs and frowning comically as he thought it through. “Won’t know unless you ask, though, will you?” he finally said, not sounding like he’d thought much at all. “Not like you need to quit today or anything; what’s the harm in asking what’s involved? It’d make you happier.”

Exasperated, and actually not quite sure if her happiness level was all that bad, considering, she crossed the four steps to the bed and pecked him on the lips, dancing away before he could grab her waist. “It’s sweet that you think about these things, really –” And look at her, being demonstrative. She should get a cookie. “– but I need to go through this stuff at my own speed, make sure everything’s under control.”

“Did all right this morning though, didn’t you?” Spike kept on, not giving this up. Really she could murder him. “You kept Dawn and Willow and… The eggs, you kept them in line. What’s out of balance? Barely even seems precarious to me.”

It was true, to a point. But… “This morning was a fluke,” she told him, picking out her choice for today’s ugly-yet-sturdy shoes, pretty certain that it was. “A birthday fluke, almost certainly to be followed by the birthday curse, which we are not talking about and are hoping won’t strike at the party this evening.” OK; the brown boots. That meant she was ready. Which, oh, meant she was supposed to go.

Crap. She didn’t want to go.

“Nah,” Spike replied, mostly to himself since he didn’t seem to have noticed her distraction, “not a fluke. It was ‘cause you had a proper seeing to, that was. A service,” he continued, not self-deprecating in the least, “that I intend to provide as long as it’s required.”

Usually she would laugh at his silly, soulless ego, but this time it made her heart sink. Why did she have to go to work for nine hours, then come home to a house full of strangers – and there were gonna be strangers, by the sound of it; why couldn’t she just do this all day?

“Buffy?” came the question, catching on to her silence – and then Spike was off the bed, towel forgotten, holding a palm to her face. Dammit, it made her shiver, clench her stomach like the day before… She reined it in, tried not to let anything show. “I know it’s hard, love,” he continued, talking about something, who knew what, “but you keep at it, don’t you, eh?” He smiled. “Look, I’m only saying think about it. Doing things differently one time, just going for it – that can do a lot, right? Give a lot more back than the effort you put in.”

“I’ll think about it,” she gave in, trying to summon the energy to walk out the door yet again. Quickly, before she changed her mind, she gave in to impulse and threw her arms around his naked waist, reaching up to stroke the welts she’d left that night, hugging him close. Maybe if she took a memory with her, then it wouldn’t seem so long.

Surprised, he clung to her speechlessly, wrapping her arms around her back and huffing his face into her collar. When she pulled away, he looked slightly broken, like she was leaving him at home to go to sea. In that moment, for the first time, it felt exactly like she was.

Work was hard that day, but it happened, and she got through it, even if she did manage to pour old fryer grease all down her leg in a stain that was never, ever going to come out. It was a good thing her pants had only cost eighteen dollars, she supposed, but that was eighteen dollars that wasn’t going to get spent on food and it felt mostly like a failure.

The whole day had gone by now, of course, and Buffy wondered what she would have done if she hadn’t been at the Palace. Probably she would have had a lot more sex with Spike, but maybe she would have got some cleaning done as well, washed up from the night before.

Idly, Buffy wondered what Detective Lockley would have been doing all day. Cops didn’t really get much sleep, she supposed, so maybe it had been terrible. Probably paperwork. But she would have been in a comfy desk chair while she did that, wouldn’t she? Maybe even one with wheels. The sores on the bottoms of Buffy’s feet really liked the sound of that…

She reached the end of her driveway in barely any time at all, then sighed as she stood outside the house, pouting at the subdued sound of music coming from inside. It was time to get this getting older over with, she supposed, and show off her fantabulous grease-stained life to all her guests. Then she could get changed into something they wouldn’t remember. Whoop-de-do.

“Oi, Slayer,” came a hiss from the shadow of a tree. It was followed by a cigarette butt, thrown through the air at her shoe. It was probably only luck that kept her whole leg from going up in flames.

She stamped it out on the gravel. “Spike?” she asked, peering. He was there, but, wow, that tree cast a darker shadow than she thought it would. It was kind of nice that he was here to bookend her shift, but, still: “Why aren’t you inside?”

For a moment he looked at her, but then he seemed satisfied that she wasn’t trying to get rid of him. “I would be,” he groused at last, “if your friends weren’t such a terrible group of people.”

“What did they do now?” Oh, great, she thought, slumping lower in her bad posture. This was just what she’d been hoping to come home to. “Did they kick you out? They can’t do that, I…”

As he took a breath, it looked like he was going to tell her that that was exactly what they had done – but then he relented, rolling his eyes. “They’re playing musical chairs,” he explained.

“Oh,” she replied, relieved. Then she wrinkled her nose, realising he meant literally. “Oh, god, really?”

Spike shook his head in disgust, making her laugh. The music chose that moment to stop, and she could hear for herself all the clattering furniture and laughing. Somebody (Anya?) complaining about mistreatment. Buffy cringed.

“Although Willow, bless her,” Spike commented, gesturing for her to lead the way around the back of the house. That could work actually; she could sneak upstairs and change in secret. “She’s put on quite a spread. You’ll be having bite-size dinners for weeks.” OK, that was better; Buffy hmmed appreciatively, tracking them down the path. “Got some beers in and everything. Mostly bottled up bilgewater, it has to be said, but I’ve topped you up with a few bits. Oh,” he continued, filling the silence, “and your detective showed up.”

They were on the back porch now, where Buffy had to pause, turning around. “Huh?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Spike replied, amused. “She goes by ‘Kate’ apparently. Willow invited her in, a bit tipsy on the old bilgewater. We’re in for a right old time of it if all your friends are that much of a lightweight…”

“Huh?” Buffy repeated, still not following.

Spike shrugged, like it was normal for the Scoobies to include new people. “She won the first game of musical chairs.”

Thankfully the backdoor opened at this moment, producing a rosy-cheeked Tara waving a hand in front of her face, drinking from a Dixie cup in the other. “Oh, hey, guys,” she said, warm smile spreading as she caught sight of them. “We were wondering when you’d get here. And happy birthday, Buffy!”

“Thanks, Tara,” Buffy replied, smiling back, distracting herself from her confusion. Although now she had no idea what to say; did Tara know about everything? She looked like she was cool with whatever, but then Tara was a pretty cool person. And Buffy didn’t want to put her foot in it and start at the end if she was meant to be starting at the beginning – which was proverbially a very good place to start, even if she had no idea where it was.

Spike looked like he was going to follow her lead. The man was useless to her.

“So,” Tara broke the quiet, flush fading. “Willow told me you came out?”

Now Buffy was frowning again, glancing back to the path they’d just walked. “Uh, no,” she explained, glad at least that this was a question she could answer. “We were just going in, actually. I need to change my pants.” Suddenly Tara’s reassuring smile became wide-eyed and scandalised, so Buffy amended quickly, holding the material up to the light. “Grease!” Oh, god, what did Tara think it was? “It’s grease!” She wasn’t that much of a… “I got a grease stain at work!”

Unhelpfully, Spike started snickering, even after her glare. He was probably thinking about all her other clothes that had been reduced to a less than respectable condition. Bastard. “At least that clears something up, pet,” he managed to comment, flicking his eyes to Tara.

Oh yeah, Buffy realised, meeting the other woman’s blush. Clearly the secret was out, which was probably good – and she got what Tara had meant by ‘came out’ now– but going by that complete failure to talk about it, maybe it was best to get on with the party and not bring it up again. “I’m, uh, gonna go inside,” she said, heading towards the door, fingers drifting to Spike’s on the way.

As she walked past Tara, though, the woman at least got through her embarrassment enough to put her hand on Buffy’s shoulder. “Whatever the others say,” she whispered, in a way that wasn’t intended for Spike’s ears, but which he almost certainly heard anyway, “I’m really happy for you.”

Brought up short, Buffy found herself relaxing, a smile pulled to her face. “Thanks,” she whispered, definitely grateful. She hoped both of them would hear the, Me too, actually. She’d only just realised it.

It all went wrong about midnight.

Or, actually, they said it was midnight later, but Buffy had a feeling it was more like eleven. Dawn was still up, granted reprieve from the evil constraints of teenage bedtime for one night only, and she hadn’t yet dropped off to sleep of her own accord. Since that usually happened at about eleven-thirty, there was much to be suspicious about.

They’d done cake, which had in fact been secretly produced in the kitchen of Dawn, to a very high level of chocolate. Everyone had gushed gratefully, and despite Spike’s whisper in her ear about the correct use for the leftover chocolate sauce, he’d been allowed to sit and stand and slouch in her vicinity without comment. Frowns, but no comment. Conversation had flowed, even, and everyone had quickly filled themselves too full for party games. This was good, in Buffy’s book, even if it did mean Monopoly.

At about eleven, or eleven-thirty, however, Anya threw down her cards (including the Broadwalk she’d bought off Dawn for the hefty sum turned a steal now) and declared, “OK; I don’t care if everyone else has forgotten. I wanna do presents! Ours is excellent.”

Considering that the usual way Monopoly ended was Anya bullying everyone playing right through to her inevitable victory, this was a demand they were happy to meet. After all, Buffy actually had forgotten about presents, which was embarrassing enough in itself. And so they packed everything away, called Tara, Spike and Kate from where they’d given up in the kitchen, then gathered for the ritual gift-giving. Buffy knelt where she was in the centre of the room, while everyone else sat, stood or lurked around the coffee table. Kate and Tara seemed to be friends now; they were standing together, shared a joke.

Presents, to be fair, started great with Xander’s revelation of his (and Anya’s) weapons chest. Big, chunky, solid, beautiful; it was enough to make Buffy coo instinctively, forgiving him entirely for the not-a-date (Randall?) who’d long gone home. She met Xander’s grin with a thousand feelings of friendship. “Oh, this is so amazing, Xand; thank you.”

“No problem,” he replied, leaving it by her side as he went back to his place on the couch, the beaming Anya who took his hand. He continued as Buffy opened up the elegantly-shaped catch, taking in all the compartments and holders inside, “I figured you needed something you could keep in here in easy access, without gathering odd looks from rogue callers.”

“I picked out the pattern for the embossing,” Anya said, leaning forward to indicate the design on the top.

It was really, really nice, like something her mom would have picked out for blankets in the guest room. Not that Buffy knew much about interior decorating, but she figured it looked classic. And the workmanship was impeccable. “I’m gonna treasure it, guys, seriously,” she told them, running a hand over the lid. Everyone else looked just as impressed as she was, though Kate was raising eyebrows over her beer. Even Spike, lurking by the sofa, nodded at her as if to say, Don’t look half bad, that.

It was Tara’s present next, which was less flashy, but also really lovely as a box opened up to reveal a selection of four hand-labelled bottles, all blown from cobalt blue glass with their necks tied off in gold ribbon. “They’re blessed bath oils,” she explained as Buffy ran her fingers over them, looking a little pink from speaking up. “Aromatherapy with an extra – kick, I guess? I, uh, thought you might like baths, with all the fighting you do.”

Given all the muscle aches she got? It was fair to say Buffy was a bather. “Thanks, Tara,” she said, smiling, then reading over the labels in turn. It was kind of like what she’d seen in shops, but usually in the fancy concessions she couldn’t afford: Health – Peppermint, the first one said, in Tara’s precise capitals. It was followed by Power – Clove and Peace – Chamomile, and she was already excited about using them, if only to see what Tara meant by ‘power’. On the last one, however, she paused. It stared at her quite plainly, in bold letters like the others: Sex – Star Anise.

Buffy couldn’t help but blush, before glancing up to see that Tara was giving her a sneaky, secret grin. It just made her cheeks burn harder. “They look great!” Buffy said, trying not to squeak as she hastily put the lid back on the box.

No one else seemed to have caught on, which was good. Sexy bath things stopped being quite so harmless when everyone knew who you’d be using them with. Or maybe that was just her?

Willow, however, seemed to have got the same idea about the perfect present for Buffy, even if she’d gone with the technology route. Her present was a back massager. A battery-operated, portable vibrating thing, and she was pointing out the controls in a way that made Buffy certain it was too complicated for anyone to use it properly. And yet Willow kept on explaining, saying, “I thought you could use it on patrol. Any time you get a little achey, then – blam! Instant gratification.”

If Buffy hadn’t already been thinking it, then maybe, just maybe, she wouldn’t have thought about how unnecessary an extra device was for that. About how she’d had instant gratification plenty. Against trees. And tombstones. And – As it was, she blushed an even deeper pink than she was already, flashing her eyes to Spike’s innuendo face in plain view of every one of her friends, to made Xander harrumph. Loudly. The tension in the room increased exponentially.

Quickly Buffy cut in, “That sounds amazing! Thanks, Will.” Colour was rising high on Willow’s cheeks as she realised what she’d said, and she apparently didn’t trust herself to speak, because she simply nodded, mouth tightly closed.

“And here’s mine,” Dawn said at last, doing her bit to ease the tension but starting to sound cranky with tiredness. She passed the slim, small box Buffy’s way and she unwrapped the paper, preparing herself to get excited over more chocolate, or whatever it was. It wasn’t like Dawn had money to burn on a gift, after all, only…

Buffy gasped, brought to a halt. Inside the box, which was unmarked, there was a gorgeous leather collar, at rest like a small black snake. It actually threw all thoughts of sex completely out of Buffy’s mind, whether that was stupid or not; she was too caught up in the shiny. The thin and supple skin of the necklace was held between clasps, a silver chain that would hang from the back of it the only adornment apart from the leather itself. It was beautiful. It looked expensive. “Oh my gosh,” Buffy began.

Only to have Dawn anticipate what she wasn’t going to say. “Obviously,” she defended herself, sardonic, “I got this before I knew about the bondage.”

Silence fell. Spike guffawed. There was the sound of beer being snorted through nostrils. “OK, what?” Xander spluttered from the couch, sounding scandalised. His eyes flared, first to Buffy’s (she glanced away), then to Spike, then to Dawn. “What the hell?”

No one had much of an answer, until: “You know bondage, sweetie,” Anya soothed from Xander’s side, rubbing his knee and frowning. “Like when we –”

“I know what it is, Ahn,” Xander snapped, getting louder. Buffy flinched. “What I want to know is how Dawn knows,” he continued, turning glares at Buffy, then Spike in turn as if he was trying to choose to pick a fight with. “I want to know what Spike’s doing in this house, hanging out and obviously corrupting –”

“Oh, can it, Harris,” Spike sneered, dragging all the heat towards him. Now it started, it was definitely starting. “You know full well I take good care of Dawn –“

“Yeah, he does!” came the care-ee’s agreement, quickening the pace of everyone’s words.

“– and you have jackshit say in mine and the Slayer’s private business, so –”

“When did you and Buffy get ‘private business’, all of a sudden?” Xander retaliated before Spike had even finished, exclamation thunderous. “We’ve been by her side through thick and thin, so don’t think just because –”

Spike did the same. “Yeah, right, you – ”

“Xander’s right, Spike!” Then Willow. “You can’t just expect that we’ll –”

“Oh, come off of it!” Anya.

“You can fuck off and all, Red, with your –”

“How about we all…”

“No, Tara, we need –”

Buffy’s eyes were closed by this point, but the voices, the voices carried on. Somehow she should have seen this coming, she knew, realised that at some point in the evening it was going to go down this way – and yet she was fairly sure she’d been hoping it wouldn’t, like things might continue the way they had this morning, where Willow was shocked, but not enough to start a catastrophe. It was only Xander really, she knew, who had a problem, but his voice could fill a room, and Spike, when you set him off, he just sounded so mean, dirty and arrogant and brittle and subversive, all the things that he wasn’t quite, actually, when you fully found him out.

She wasn’t ready for this, Buffy realised. She hadn’t prepared herself at all.

And so she got out. Opening her eyes to Dawn’s wavering, apologetic frown, Buffy climbed to her feet and turned around, walked away from the screaming match and into the kitchen. With one easy jerk she hauled open the fridge, pulled out one of Spike’s cold beers and held it against the tense pressure of her forehead. Then she slammed the door and kept going, slipping outside into the garden and the silence. Quiet, cool and peace.

Slumping, she stood out of the direct light, feet planted firmly on the grass as she looked up to the sky. Light pollution or clouds were probably what was killing most of the stars, but the moon was there, a grey half-circle, dim and matte. Something to stare at. At last.

The argument inside would end eventually, she knew, but she found herself wishing she could leap forward in time, jump to the new moon, maybe, when Xander’s wedding would hit the agenda with a hell of a lot more force than her life. Would it be so hard? Even just a night – she would take skipping a night. Was it so wrong to want that?

It wasn’t like it hadn’t been possible before. Until recently she’d been able to throw herself into uniform and let six hours pass between the grill and the register, not even noticing. She’d often found herself in tears when she came out the other side, but she’d been able to sit and stare and think for minutes and hours at a time, let life happen around her while she waited for her stop. Maybe it hadn’t been healthy, but it had been easier thanthis, this awareness of every sentence she couldn’t hear being shouted and every second she was failing at integrating Spike. It wasn’t that she didn’t want it to happen, after all, she just knew it was gonna take time. And that time was probably meant to be now.

Bringing the beer down from her forehead, Buffy decided that she might as well drink it, even if she hadn’t brought an opener outside. What was super strength for if not to push against a beer cap, feel the teeth dig in and keep on pushing?

“That can’t be good for your thumb,” Kate’s voice came from behind her shoulder, just as the cap popped off.

Buffy spun around, sloshing beer froth across her shoes, surprise lurching through her chest.

“Sorry,” Kate said, smiling awkwardly from the back porch. She had a bottle in her hand as well, but that didn’t seem to have any cap difficulties. “Family feuding,” she explained. “It’s not really my thing. I thought you might like some company.”

“People say that,” Buffy said; her words came out morose. “It usually just means that they want some themselves.”

“Actually, you’d be surprised,” Kate shot back, tilting her bottle to a jaunty angle before she took a sip. She didn’t sound like she was disagreeing, only that Buffy might be interested in a correction. “In my experience, it’s usually some misguided idea that they might help.”

At that, Buffy found the side of her mouth quirking up. “Is that why you’re here, then?” Bringing her own bottle up, she drank something like a toast. Of course it was Spike’s beer, so it tasted dark and bitter, strong like sandpaper. A little gross. But, as she remembered, it got better when you were half a bottle down.

“No,” Kate said, responding slowly to her question. “I actually did want the company.” With that Kate came down the steps, joining Buffy on the grass, where she wasn’t so unwelcome, in the end. “I’m really not a fan of yelling; which is funny, with my job.” She smiled, and, at that point, Buffy was smiling with her. “Although, also, I came to the house this evening to try and talk to you, so this seemed like a good moment to get you alone – even if it’s only to thank you.” She nodded her head back towards inside. “This has been the most social evening I’ve had since I left LA.”

Surprised, Buffy caught on to that last point. “What, really?” she asked. Kate’s face was serious. Apparently she really was calling her exclusive-spin-on-a-dime-claustrophobic party social. “I guess this is a small town, huh?”

“Yeah,” Kate replied, tossing hair out of her eyes. “That, and the attempted suicide put a minor downer on things.” The confession came with a shrug.

All the same, it killed Buffy’s urge to be flip. Not commenting immediately, she squinted, almost surprised – but then, yeah, she could see it. Not that she was an authority on suicide, obviously, but she figured she was almost an expert on death these days. “I know how that goes,” she finally responded, taking care.

“I almost thought you might,” Kate said. She looked like she wanted to say more, but distracted herself, commenting instead, “Those oils, by the way, that – Tara gave you? If they’re anything like the candles she does for the Magic Box, they’re really good.”

Buffy blinked, before remembering the day before. “Oh, really?” Apparently she had just been interested in candles. “Cool.” Kate shrugged, pressing her lips together in something like a smile, which made Buffy figure she could possibly ask a question. “So, um…” she began. “How long ago was it, for you?”

“Oh.” Pausing, Kate seemed to gather up her thoughts. “Well, I guess it’s been about a year now,” she said. “There’s still a few weeks before the actual anniversary, but… Yeah.”

“Huh,” Buffy replied. Only a year, she thought. And yet the detective looked so together, like everything was fully back on track – even if it was only in Sunnydale. Who knew that was possible? Maybe she could let her in on the secret. “Did anyone in there tell you how I managed to manage mine? The dying, I mean.”

That comment, which Buffy thought it was only fair to offer, had Kate raise her eyebrows. She took another sip of beer before she replied, “It didn’t come up, I’ve gotta say.” She sounded intrigued. “How exactly does that work?”

Shrugging, Buffy explained, “Big tower, apocalypse, the retiring redhead inside and a whole load of dark magic. At least that’s the way I understand it.” She finished with another swig of beer. “Four months in the ground, if you can believe it.”

“I guess I’m gonna have to,” Kate replied, taking it more in her stride than Buffy would have expected. Even if she took a moment to mouth, four months? and shake her head, like she wasn’t sure she’d heard. “Anyway, look,” she continued, shrugging her shoulders better into her jacket (the same one as from last night), “I was only gonna say two things.” It was nice to move from talking suicide straight back into general conversation, Buffy realised, almost like it was an acceptable experience to have. Maybe she liked this woman. “Well.” Kate paused; Buffy concentrated again. “Only one thing, really, when I came, but then this other part leapt out at me – because, I mean, I hope you didn’t refuse my job offer because your boyfriend’s a vampire, did you?” She looked at Buffy with her eyes open and guileless, trying to be clear, it seemed. “Because, for me, let me tell you, that’s not an issue. It doesn’t bother me at all. Not that I’m saying I don’t have issues, but they’re all with other things. And this – other guy.”

“That’s… Good to know,” Buffy told her, looking at her slightly askance in the hope her words might make more sense. Or at least sound less like she was talking about Angel. “But no,” she shook herself from that egocentric idea, “it wasn’t that.” She still – it was still a control thing. Maybe in a few weeks she’d feel like she could take it, but not now, even if Kate was fine with Spike being Spike. “I’m sorry; the idea’s just too much at the moment.”

“No problem.” Kate looked relieved as she continued, “I understand – and, well, the offer still stands. Consider it permanently open.” She looked down, throwing the idea out there with an abandon Buffy was grateful for, and then carried on. “Otherwise, I wanted to thank you for your lead earlier, on Warren Mears?”

Still grimacing over the taste of her drink, Buffy could easily be distracted by that, if not from the grimace. “Oh?” she asked, ears perking up.

“Yeah,” Kate said, sounding perplexed. “We went to his home this morning, did what turned out to be a raid – stolen artefacts, ill-gotten goods, hard cash in bank rolls.” She told it like a story she wanted to share, her surprise coming out in every word. “That place was an Aladdin’s cave; I’m not sure I’ve seen a drug cartel with more bling.” The problem was for Buffy that she always heard weird things. “We caught him and his accomplice playing on an Xbox.”

Bottle to her lip, Buffy paused at that moment, suddenly not sure what she was hearing. “Wait,” she said. “You arrested him? Arrested Warren?” That – couldn’t be possible. It just wasn’t.

“Yeah,” Kate replied, shrugging. Buffy supposed she arrested lots of people. But then she continued, “Blond guy, right? Looks like an extra from a Bill and Ted movie? Short guy sidekick?”

No. “No…” Buffy told her, stomach sinking, pretty much bottoming out. “That’s not Warren.” Crap; maybe she should have been there, because that wasn’t Warren at all. “That’s just –”

It was this point when she heard rustling in her undergrowth. “Bitch!” came the rather frantic-sounding shout. He had timing; really, you had to give him that. You really did.

That’s Warren,” Buffy said, the words coming automatically as she turned to look his way. She should have seen this coming, she thought; known it at least. There should have been some sort of warning, but there was nothing, just a guy in a hoodie trespassing on her property, coming up from the other end of the garden.

“You thought you could do that to me!” He looked terrible, because of the low light or what Buffy couldn’t be sure, but his face was haggard, eyes wide and strained. It was like his whole world had come crashing down around his ears. Buffy knew how that felt, but she was frozen without sympathy. Still not sure what was happening. “Thought you could take everything away! Well –” Oh, shit, what was that in his hand? This was why she stuck to demons; this was –“Think again!”

After that? She was just being shot. Which, as birthday disasters went, kind of blew.

Buffy could never be quite sure about the sequence of events, not as they happened and not afterwards, but she was fairly sure Kate pulled her down as the shot fired, shouting out a warning or something like it. It made her wrist wrench through closed fingers when the impact hit, so that made sense that there were bruises, later. But there was more shouting as well, Kate calling out like a cop on TV, backed up by the metal clicks of her own gun falling into hand. There was a shot and then another, and then another, and a hand pressed high on her chest – right where the pain was, which wasn’t very nice – and talking, muttering of fragments, some of which sounded like her name.

There were a lot more footsteps and voices than people outside, also, which was strange. She could hear them, but looking up at the blank, black sky she couldn’t see them. At some point they faded away like the moon.

The ceiling above her was white. She was hooked up to something, fresh out of surgery it felt like, but Dawn was holding her hand. Something black and blocky, male-shaped was pacing at the end of her bed, hand rising and falling like it lacked a cigarette. On her left, where the room stretched, there was a cluster of people: one chair between them, two people sitting on it; one hovering by the wall, one sitting on her bed.

Everyone looked very contrite. “Wow…” Buffy murmured, blinking into wakefulness. A collective sigh ran about the room, staggered as people met her eyes. She could almost hear the sound of skin cracking smiles. “There’s so many people here…”

“See, Buff,” Xander told her gently as Dawn squeezed her hand, continuing with his head tucked onto Anya’s shoulder, “that’s ‘cause a lot of people care.” And that was Willow, wasn’t it, patting her knee in reassurance? Looking to Tara for her own?

“Man’s right, Slayer,” now Spike said gruffly, resting his hands on the steel bed rail, slipping further into focus. She smiled at him for being agreeable; he stood stock still at the end of her feet, facing her so their eyes met on a perfectly straight trajectory. “Buffy –” suddenly he addressed her, hands clenching, voice more like they were alone. It made her heart stir.

But Spike was interrupted by the doctor, who came in through the door on his left. She strode in, flanked by a nurse, who buzzed around, checking things. “Miss Summers,” she began, “I’m glad to see…”

After that the doctor’s voice blurred quickly, sentences tending to dip and slide into a drone. Nonetheless, Buffy managed to pick up certain pieces of information, like the fact she’d been shot, which was nice to know, and that her clavicle had made a good first line of defence. That was good, even if her left arm was going to be screwy for a while. Also, however, she apparently would have to stay in some days for observation. At that Buffy almost groaned. This was why she hated hospitals.

In her hand, however, Dawn’s palm was sweating, so Buffy resisted the impulse to complain. She squeezed her fingers more firmly, tried to say without words that things would be OK – threw a smile at Dawn’s shadowed young face. It wasn’t that Buffy knew how she was meant to make it happen, but some part of her had clung to life, hadn’t it? She’d come back from the blackout when she could have just died; that meant things had to be OK.

Man, she was tired.

She felt it when he left. It was like all the air went dead around her, which was more than ironic, but she was too busy feeling it to care. “Spike…?”

Everyone was in the wrong place. All on her left now, Dawn was sat on the floor beside a conspicuously empty space, clutching a can of Dr. Pepper to her mouth while Xander eased himself down to her other side. Anya was pulling a selection of sandwiches, chocolate and juice boxes from a blue plastic bag, arranging them hesitantly on the now-vacated chair. Willow and Tara were somewhere else.

None of them were looking at her, so Buffy thought that maybe they hadn’t heard. “Where did Spike go?” she asked, a little stronger – before adding, just in case, “And the others.”

“Xander made him go get blood,” Anya informed her brightly, ignoring the extraneous question.

Looking mortified, Xander stared at her, before turning to Buffy and gulping the expression back. “Yeah, um…” He paused, not talking for a long time. “He’ll be back soon,” he finally added, with a quick, forced smile.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” Swirling feelings of worry twisted in Buffy’s stomach and it seemed necessary to say. “I should have told you before; we could have…”

“It’s fine,” Xander replied, panicked hand waving in front of his body. From what Buffy could make out of his face, it looked like he was going to leave it there, but Anya was frowning and Dawn poked his arm. Buffy held her breath as he continued, “I mean…” Then he sighed. “It’s really fine.”

She felt the air rush into her; he sounded pretty much sincere. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, why not?” he said resignedly. “We should have seen it coming, I guess.” Glancing at Dawn, he finally allowed, “It’s not like you haven’t been tying each other up for years – you big flirts.”

“Oh,” was all Buffy could say. Was that what that was?

“Everything’s OK,” Dawn told her gently, apparently noticing as Buffy’s vision struggled to keep clear. “Just get some rest.”

It was Dawn who should be doing that, Buffy thought; she had school. Buffy would rest when she was…

She woke up fully by mid-morning, so the clock on the wall told her, propped up on the tilty bed and easily taking in the bright and beeping room. The night had escaped her after all, it seemed, if not quite in the way that she’d hoped. It felt, actually, really weird.

Of course, this was mostly because it had still found the others. Xander and Anya looked exhausted, so Buffy told them to go spread the news she was OK, just get some sleep or whatever, and they left the room – easily biddable after the nurses had come and gone. Dawn was asleep on a two-chair-made-bed, breathing heavily through her frown, so it was easy to leave her to the light shining in through the blinds.

Spike was as awake as her, but – he was ever so slightly punch-drunk; wide-eyed and over stimulated when she smiled at him. She tried to invite him up the bed, but he would only have it halfway, sitting by her knees and clutching his own to his chest, ankles crossed. Not touching her.

Exasperated, she let it go. “So, OK,” she said, stretching out for the bowl of goop she’d been given to eat. She’d had them put the tray by her side, but she could reach it. “Fill me in.”

“Well,” Spike began, still watching her owlishly, “Warren’s dead.” Oh. Buffy paused, spoon in her mouth. “Our cop did her job, shot him down when he wasn’t gonna stop, had better aim than he did.”

“I… She shot him?” Frowning, she didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t really sure how killing Warren worked, and didn’t feel like she was comfortable with it. Obviously she knew this was what cops did; she’d seen it on TV a hundred times, and if there was anyone she would suspect of not freezing when a cop told him to, it was Warren. But, all the same; how could it be that – “She really shot him?”

Spike shrugged, completely unconcerned. “She said she’d drop by when she could. Once the ambulance came she had to head back to the station, get all the paperwork filed.”

“Oh.” That was probably it, wasn’t it? In her world, Buffy knew, she made it up as she went along, but Kate had all her rules to follow, regulations and parameters. Maybe that made it easier. Or maybe it made it more difficult. “I don’t understand humans,” Buffy decided at last, frustrated with having to think. She dumped her spoon in the goop bowl then reached out again towards Spike. It was a gesture she hoped he’d take up this time.

At first he frowned, glancing towards her dressing, but relented as she pouted, gingerly lying himself on his side and resting his head just above her hip. Ceasing to think with the weight of him, she let her fingers dig through his hair, poked at the thoughts she knew that he was hiding.

Eventually Spike did what he was meant to: he picked up her train of thought and resolved it. “No one understands humans, love,” he said, smoothing the covers over her stomach. “Not even them.” With a shift his head, he looked up, daft smile on his face. It probably matched hers. “You’re bloody soft, fragile creatures, who somehow got by with a bit of flint and the odd urge to negotiate. No one understands you.” He finished, nuzzling his head back down, appreciative of softness, “I wouldn’t fret on it.”

Maybe that was OK, then, she thought, returning to her head-stroking. They were soothing, Spike’s pronouncements, the way he saw the world so absolutely. Even if she had to focus on the details, he would never not see things in big, convenient lumps. Although – “I don’t think I’m fragile,” she said. Sure, she couldn’t move her left arm right at the moment and her whole body was suffused with a light, fluffy feeling, but that didn’t mean anything. “I just got shot.”

“Suppose that’s all right, then,” Spike replied, a little nonsensically. She rolled her eyes. It wasn’t uncomfortable in the least, but he was slumping a more heavily into her side now, almost certainly falling asleep. “Shouldn’t feel bad, though,” he added, words starting to slur, “not about needing your rest.”

“Nah,” she agreed as he snuffled, drifting off, drifting still. “I won’t.”

He was soon dead in her arms again, but that was all right. She was OK. She was alive – and healing, if her itching skin had anything to say about it. For the moment she was awake, and it felt, it almost felt like she was fine with that. Like she was fine with the seconds ticking by.

When Spike woke up, she could tell him exactly what time it was.


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