Whispers in a Dead Man’s Ear (4/8)

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Whispers in a Dead Man's Ear
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Halfway there, and still with the hurting.  Hang in there with me.

Part 4:

Set post-Dead Things, BtVS.  Buffy left Spike in the alley, battered and broken, to find his own way home before the sunrise.  His healing in the aftermath, however, isn’t left unaided.

Whispers in a Dead Man’s Ear (4/8)

The door didn’t slam open this time.

No knock, but yet no resounding crash of heavy old wood against even weightier stone, no impotent battering at the walls within which he made his home.

Perhaps she’d done all the battering she could stomach.  It was a bitterly hopeful thought.

He didn’t raise his head, didn’t stand, didn’t move towards the ladder that would carry him towards her, and it wasn’t because he couldn’t.  The act of standing itself would have caused a wealth of pain, walking even more, and yet he could’ve endured it—would have, in fact—but for the resignation that had seeped into his core, a sort of spiritual lividity that marked his essence as clearly as the bruises still marred his flesh.

And so he lay there, listening, waiting, taking in the soft, measured footsteps, the anxious rabbiting of her heart, the slow, deep breaths she was using as she fought to calm herself.  He smiled ruefully, smothering the hiss of pain that the action urged forth, as he recognized the technique as the pattern of breaths that he himself had taught her during the long nights of near-silent companionship that had followed her return from the grave.  The nights when he’d been foolish enough to believe that perhaps he could be enough, that perhaps she’d be able to see beneath the meager comfort he could offer to the wealth of love that ballasted his efforts.

Those nights were long past now, little more than ephemerally bittersweet memories in pursuit of which he had increasingly been forced to dig desperately, and yet to which he had clung with all the ardor of a young poet in love.  He’d lost them somehow with the last rising and falling of the sun; even so, somewhere inside, what remained of the poet forced him to think around how that loss had happened, as though that would hide the truth of the matter, would make it somehow not so.

The truth, however, was stronger than he was.  It wouldn’t allow him to ignore it, wouldn’t let him forget how Buffy had driven cold, harsh reality into his flesh with every strike of warm, angry fists.  How she’d forced him to see with wide open eyes, even as she battered them closed.

He felt her getting nearer, heard her slide the rug from the trapdoor and ease it open to thump softly against the fabric-shielded stone.  His body tensed; neck stiff, stomach taut, fingers curling beneath the sheets, he ignored the screaming of muscle and bone as he prepared to defend himself.

If this was death, he wanted to meet it as it came.

“Spike?”  The tremulous whisper came from the ladder, about halfway between above and beneath inasmuch as he could tell, and he let himself relax a bit.  Surely death wouldn’t murmur his name as though it feared for him.

“Need something, Slayer?” he sighed, castigating himself inwardly even as the words found breath.  Somehow, even now, he couldn’t find it within himself to not answer her call.

“I came… I wanted…”  The words trailed off and ended in a silent huff, and Spike pressed his lips together determinedly, fighting back speech.  He was through finishing her sentences; that, and for once he truly wasn’t sure what she could want.

Her footfalls on the remaining steps seemed a bit louder, and he was more than a little surprised to realize that she must have muffled them until she knew that he was awake.  It was a gesture so considerate and unheard of as to be touching.

“Sneaking up on a bloke?” he asked, voice husky with sleep and disuse.  He couldn’t remember the last time he had been well and truly silent for so long.

“I didn’t mean to wake you.”  That same meek tone, almost frail, answered him, and he rose up on his elbows to finally look at her, to solve the mystery, groaning with the effort and the shift of still-unhealed bone.  The soft gasp she couldn’t quite muffle filled the silence between them, and he watched her eyes widen as she took in the damage that he knew, even without the benefit of a reflection, was severe.

“Didn’t,” he lied, scanning her measuringly as she stood awkwardly at the lower corner of the bed.

“Oh, God, I…”  The words were scarcely more than breathless little exhalations that came as she flexed and fisted one hand awkwardly, pausing only to rub the open palm against the denim of her pants before tensing her fingers again.  The other hand seemed to tighten reflexively on the handle of the boxy black bag that occupied it, and her lips again curved around a near-silent chant.  “Oh, God, what did I… how can I… oh God… I… breathe…”

It was the reminder to herself to breathe, the tiny little trigger that he himself had repeated to her during those nights he wanted to remember, that muted the pain just enough—made him forgive her just enough—to let him try to lighten her burden.

“What’s in the bag, Buffy?” he asked, a gentleness that surprised even him suffusing his tone and filling her wide, startled eyes with an infusion of gratitude.

“It’s… um…”  Her eyes swept the flesh she could see, from mid-chest up, and she chewed her lower lip again, eyes still registering something he didn’t dare to name regret.  His arched brow seemed to wake her from her reverie, and she shook her head for an instant before reaching the bag-occupied hand out to him.  “I brought bandages and… things.  Thought that maybe… But I don’t know if they’re going to help.”

She took a step forward, her actions belying the futility her words seemed to convey, and placed the bag on the corner of the bed.  She straightened, and he thought that she was going to turn to leave, was certain of it; his surprise was nearly palpable when she didn’t.  Instead, she simply reached up and gathered her hair, wrapping it with an elastic she’d had around her wrist, and then bent forward to open the bag, removing its contents and lining them up on the vacant edge of the bed.

“What are you doing?”  His arms were beginning to tremble with the effort of holding himself up, but he forced himself to stay as he was until she met his gaze.

“I want to… I just thought maybe I could help.”

“You’ve not done enough?” he asked sharply as he sank back onto the bed, mildly amused by the fact that his arms had picked a perfectly melodramatic time to surrender.

“Maybe I have.  Maybe I’ve… If you want me to go, I will.  I can leave this stuff here if you think…”  She turned from him, taking deep breaths, rubbing both open palms against her thighs.  “If you think I should.  But I’d like to stay, at least long enough to make sure you’re okay,” she finished softly.  Her shoulders were stiff, muscles rigid, and Spike was absurdly glad that he wasn’t the only one who seemed to have no idea what the hell was happening here.

“Bit off from okay,” he answered, still wary, easing himself upright again and moving his feet to the edge of the bed.  He couldn’t quite smother the snarl that escaped as the edges of the broken bones of his ribs ground together, but he did manage to force himself into sitting up.  He could feel Buffy’s eyes on him, following every move; the moment he stilled, he heard her come towards him.

“Do you want to stand up?” she asked, stooping and sliding one arm under his when he muttered an affirmative response.

“’m not wearin’ anything under the sheet, Buffy, an’ I need my hand to push up, so I can’t hold it.  Might want to look to the wall.”

From the look on her face, even as viewed from the corner of his eye, the resignation in his voice seemed to have chastened her; she shook her head, the blunt ends of her ponytail tickling his arm where it rested across her shoulders.  “No.  I’ve got you,” she urged, straightening slowly, wordlessly giving him time to get his bearings.

Spike’s arm dropped from her shoulders as soon as he was certain that his legs were going to hold him; he noticed that it took her longer to cease contact, that her arm didn’t abandon his body so much as trail mournfully along his flesh until it again met her side, but he ruthlessly quashed any analysis of the implications.  He took a careful step towards his dresser, but stopped when he saw her move in the same direction.

“Where are you going?” he asked, the echo of his gruff voice off stone walls halting her in her tracks.

“You were heading that way, and with what you said… I thought you wanted some jeans.  I was just going to save you a few steps.”

Spike rolled his eyes and snorted in disgust, biting the inside of his cheek as he chastised himself for giving her the benefit of the doubt.  “Told you I was naked, Buffy, an’ gave you an out besides.  Bit too late to preserve the sanctity of your eyes, so just do me a favor and save it,” he growled derisively, resuming his walk towards the far wall that held the dresser.

“I was thinking more about preserving your dignity,” she shot back heatedly, darting a hand out to grab and hold his forearm.  He stopped and wheeled to face her much faster than was either wise or comfortable, furious eyes narrowed and scrutinizing as she flushed under the weight of his stare.

“If that’s so,” he said lowly, flicking his gaze to her hand’s resting place on his arm for a bare instant before returning it to her face, “you’ll let me go an’ demonstrate that I can dress myself.”  His voice took on a sardonic edge with the last words, and he raised a brow mockingly as he returned his eyes to her face.  “Think it ought to be more than clear by now that the one of us who should be looking out for my dignity isn’t the one who left me to dust in an alley.”

Buffy’s hand drew back as if she’d been jolted, and he was so damned thankful for the distance.  It was too hard to let his brain take precedence when she was touching him, all strength and strange virtue and sweet, alluring warmth.  His heart was easily placated, quick to forgive and dismiss and gloss over, but this time he wouldn’t let it; his heart had damn near gotten him sacrificed, and his brain demanded time for a rebuttal.  He was three more slow steps past her when he heard a smothered sniffle, two more beyond that when Buffy began to speak.

“I didn’t mean it,” she said, voice quiet, almost muted, and yet still strong, unwavering.

“Can’t say as I believe that’s true,” he answered, pausing only momentarily before reaching forward and easing a drawer towards him.  “Way I see it, you meant every blow.  Just not certain they were mine to bear.”  He glanced back over his shoulder just for an instant, long enough to see her staring at him with widened, bewildered eyes, and then turned back and withdrew a pair of jeans, shaking loose the haphazard bends of his attempt at folding.  “Don’t think you’re all that certain I was what warranted knockin’ around in that alley, either.  That’s the reason you’re here, yeah?  An’ it would also be one of the reasons you’re still alive.”

There was no threat to his words; rather, they were more conversational than nearly anything he’d ever said to her, mere statements of the truth as he saw it.  He hadn’t succumbed to the base urge to rise up and kill her, had ruthlessly quashed the rage that tried to emerge with every new blow, because he knew that it wasn’t him she was trying to hurt; because he didn’t want to see Dawn left alone yet again; because he loved her.  Yet as pragmatic and uninflected as his words had been, they seemed to shake her somehow; he heard the hitching of her breath, smelled the salt of as-yet-unshed tears, and was certain that if he waited long enough, the scent of blood from her nervously-ravaged lip would perfume the air as well.  Steeling himself, he turned towards her, propping his back against the wood of the chest as he leaned cautiously forward in an attempt to figure the least agonizing method of getting dressed.

All it took was a moment of knife-sharp pain as he overextended himself to make it abundantly clear that he wasn’t going to manage dressing himself after all, pride and stubbornness be damned.  He stayed bent at the waist, staring at the floor, forcing breath out in useless, quiet exhales; annoyed, shamed, he played absently with the waistband of the jeans as though donning them was still an option, determined that his pain would not show.  Bracing himself for the agony he knew was coming, he closed his eyes and eased upwards, groaning low in his throat and gritting his teeth until he felt the solid form of the dresser again support his back.

Spike sighed inaudibly at the release of the pressure on his damaged muscles, dropping his head back for a moment and allowing himself to savor the brief sensation of one ache ebbing away in the brief moments before another could flow into the abandoned space.  A slight shift in the air alerted him to movement in the instant before he felt the denim pulled from his fingers; he opened his eyes warily, then blinked them closed and reopened them, certain that he couldn’t have really seen what he had.

“What are you playing at?” he growled, glaring down at the spot where Buffy knelt in front of him, holding his jeans out so that he could step into them.  “Get up,” he continued, an arm as tense as banded steel shooting out to snatch the clothing from her grasp.

“I’m just trying to help,” Buffy answered softly, not moving, one hand falling to rest on her thigh as she held the other one out, palm up, in a silent request.

“If you want to help, hand me the fucking sheet and get the hell out of here.”  He glared at her, eyes flashing, flicking in a constant loop between her hand, her face, and the juncture where her knees met earth.  “‘m not in it for your games right now, Slayer, an’ I’m not all that sure even you know what you’re playin’ at.  So get gone, yeah?  Let a man have somethin’ you don’t try to take away, even if it is only pain.”  He blinked back furious tears, jaw tense with anger as he bit out each word, hands clenching and warping the fabric within them.  Using the anger as fuel, he sidestepped her and stormed to the bed, tugging the sheet free and wrapping it around his waist.

“Why… why are you saying these things to me?”

He could feel the incredulity shape his expression; shaking his head, he let out a brief, bitter bark of laughter as he turned.  “Case you hadn’t noticed, Slayer, I didn’t seek you out.  Way I see it, you’re in my space by your own doing, an’ I’m too busy concentrating on keepin’ myself upright to worry about offending you.”

The ire lasted until he cast eyes upon her; she’d found her way back to her feet, and was staring at him with eyes that positively roiled with guilt, with confusion, with hurt, with fear—but at least, and at long last, they were no longer dead.  He watched as those finally-living eyes filled with tears; watched as she tried to school her features back to neutrality; watched as her battle was lost and the tears spilled over her cheeks, proud little chin still set defiantly even as it trembled with the weight of her surrender.

Little girl so very, very lost… and in recognizing it, so was he.

“Buffy,” he sighed, voice softer now, the anger and pain still imbuing every syllable, though it had gone latent in the wake of the sight of her.  “Don’t know why I’m sayin’ all this.  Figurin’ like as not I’ll start regrettin’ it on the morrow, right about the time I can feel something besides bones coming back together.”  He saw her wince, and a part of him rejoiced in it, was glad that she was feeling—could feel—any ounce of the burden of what she’d done.  He walked towards her, steps careful, and came to a stop within touching distance; he itched to reach towards her, to cup her face and brush her tears away with his thumb, but he forced himself to stay separate.  “Right now, Buffy, I’m tired.  I’m tired of tryin’ and getting’ kicked for it, tired of bein’ just the thing you use to exercise your body and your mouth, and more than anything I’m tired of trying to claw my way into a shell of a heart you don’t even want to admit still exists.”

Her mouth opened at that, a little squeak of protest meeting air before silencing itself; whether her self-censorship was because she thought he was right, or because she was punishing herself by hearing him out, he didn’t know.  He watched her in silence for a moment, saw her screw up the will to speak and tamp it back down time and again; when her mouth finally set in a hard little line, he nodded and turned, easing himself back to a seated position on the bed.  “If you’re gonna stand here and talk at me, pet, there’s not a thing I’ll do to stop you.  I’ll even listen, but you’re gonna get more than just an ear tonight.  ‘ve earned that.  So you make the call, an’ either stay or leave, cause truth be told I don’t know which I want well enough to tell you either way.  It’s up to you, Buffy.  As ever it is.”

Buffy nodded, a movement of her head so slight that it could have been a trick of shadow, and then stepped towards the bed, picking up a paper package of gauze and stripping it open before twisting the top off the large bottle of distilled water she’d brought.  She soaked the cotton and sat gingerly next to him, her movements controlled to avoid shifting him any more than necessary, and began to dab at the blood dried along his temple.  She was careful, even tender, as she continued silently with yet more dampened gauze, and he allowed himself to relax a bit into the caress, to savor how different this treatment than the cursory examination and terse “You’ll live” he’d received at her hands the year before.

Swollen eyes that had drifted closed shot open again when he felt her behind him, and she must have felt the apprehension return to him; she murmured a soothing “Shh” and then dabbed at the back of his head, the flesh beneath his hair that had torn from its repeated contact with the alley floor.  Unlike the other ministrations, these stung, and he hissed in pain and flinched.

“I had to switch to peroxide.  There was dirt here—not just blood,” she said quietly by way of explanation, and he bit his lip and nodded tersely, not bothering to remind her that dirt in his wounds didn’t matter.  It touched him that, at this moment, she believed that it did.  His eyes threatened to drift closed again, but he forced them to reopen, reassessed his trust of her when he was wounded and she was out of his sight.  He felt tentative fingers, covered in some sort of thick, soothing ointment against the newly-cleaned wound; fighting himself all the way, he lowered his lids and let her have just that small share more of his trust.

“I don’t want to be sorry.”  The words were softly spoken, tinged with something he couldn’t quite name; he kept his eyes shut, shielding the pain that shot through him as she spoke.  She sighed tremulously, then took a deep breath and muttered, “I’m no good at this,” self-reproach now filling the space that other, indeterminate emotion had occupied.  Warm, questing fingertips traced around his back before sliding forward, tracing each rib cautiously, observantly, lingering no longer than necessary on the spots that made him tense, made his fingers clench around the sheet he still held like a lifeline.

He felt the bed shift and the brush of her skin as she rose and eased around him to stand on the floor, then heard the sound of plastic crinkling.  Her fingers on his arms startled him, and he let them be shifted aside a bit, groaning when he felt the first tight pressure of the length of bandage as she wrapped it around him.  “I don’t want to be sorry, because I wish I didn’t have anything to be sorry for,” she said suddenly, her breath warm against his chest, and he realized that she’d knelt before him again.  “I wish it hadn’t happened.”

“That so?” he asked, trying and failing to keep the words noncommittal.  He could barely hear the subsonic “Yes” that was her reply, and he sighed inwardly, eyes drifting skyward behind the shield of their lids.  It seemed as though that was the closest to an apology that he was going to receive—hardly what he wanted, and yet more than he had thought to expect.

Spike eased himself back onto the bed when he felt Buffy move away, heard the quiet thumps and crinkles as she packed the unused first aid materials back into the bag and the rustle of plastic as she sorted the trash into another.  He raised his hips to free the sheet, shifted as much as he could bear to reorder it, and relished the softness of the pillow under his head, the bandages there and against his ribs making the position more comfortable than it had been before Buffy’s arrival.

He heard the faint thud of her shoes against the wood of the ladder’s lowest rung, and realized that she was leaving, that whatever this had been was now concluded—at her determination, as always.  He remained still, faking sleep, faking nonchalance—faking anything that would keep her from realizing how much he wanted her to stay, because he needed for her to go.

“The rest of the bandages and stuff are over on the dresser—I left them here for when you wake up.”

He bobbed his head in acknowledgement and rolled gingerly to one side, burrowing deeper into the pillow’s depths.  Three more faint thuds, then a fourth, and then she was above him again, well on her way to leaving him behind.  As ever it is.  He groaned, letting out the pain he’d held in from pride, from shame, from that nameless something that had stayed him once he’d seen how stricken she was by the sight of him.  The pillow muffled the sound, even as it conducted it back into his ears, filling his head with the echo of his own pain, and he suddenly ached worse than before.  He shifted again, returning his back to the mattress, and opened his eyes, only to find them met and held by Buffy’s, trained on him from where she sat, arms around her knees, on the ledge of the trapdoor opening.  Hovering between their worlds.

“I don’t want to have to be sorry, Spike.  But for what it’s worth, I am.”

She watched him for a long moment, and Spike realized that she was waiting for something… waiting for him.  He felt the need in her gaze, ravenous but reticent, as though she didn’t feel she deserved the forgiveness for which she was asking.  He didn’t know what she was seeking in his eyes, but she seemed to finally find it; she gave him a faltering half-smile in the instant before she stood and took the final step up and away from him.

The trap door lowered in her wake, and Spike was left alone again, surrounded by the half-light of the candles and the confusing legacy of her care.

 

Originally posted at http://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/49998.html

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