Her hand slid neatly into his as they stepped under the bright yellow sky. She did that a lot now, and every time her skin brushed his he felt his heart lighten. It spoke so much for the words he had yet to hear. It meant she wanted contact as much as he did.
“This a date, Slayer?”
Buffy grinned up at him, squeezing his hand. “Think we’re a little beyond dates, aren’t we?”
“Dunno. Mighty like to wine and dine you when we get back.”
Her nose wrinkled. “In Sunnydale?”
“All over the bloody world, if I have my say.”
“I think I could live with that.”
“Life’s too short to spend guarding the Hellmouth,” Spike observed. They drew to a stop at the corner, dually glancing down the proffered paths. Any direction seemed a good one.
“You’re just saying that because you want it open to all your demon friends.”
A smirk tickled his lips. “Not lying, there,” he drawled. “Figure if everything can keep from going to shit for a week, we have at least a couple days in our future, yeah?”
She smiled and squeezed his hand again. Warmth spread across his skin like wildfire. Her response, however, lit him with such hope he had to stop before he got ahead of himself. Her allowance for a future might mean nothing in the long run, but for now it gave him a glance something he longed to touch. Something he’d wanted longer than he could recall.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Where’s the best hunting ground?” Spike asked.
“There is no hunting ground,” she replied. “I don’t…I don’t really know how I found them before. It was more…I got hungry, decided to look, and eventually I’d find one. There was no method.”
Spike nodded. Fair enough. He tugged on her hand and directed her right.
It seemed strange that his first real glimpse of being in a healthy relationship came at such a price. He’d never had anything like this. Waking up beside the woman he loved, talking like normal people about their plans for the day, and leaving to face the world at each other’s side. Yes, he’d been with a woman he once thought would be his forever, but it had never felt like this. And it all seemed so fleeting he feared blinking lest it vanish.
Buffy could slip through his fingers when he wasn’t looking. He didn’t know what he would do then.
“There’s something I’ve been wondering,” Buffy volunteered.
He tossed her a glance. “Shoot, love.”
“I get how I got here,” she said softly. “I mean…jumping into a sea of hell dimensions might not have been the best idea, but it seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
Spike nodded, a shadow clouding his thoughts. It would have been her first thought; Buffy thought of herself last, others first. She always had, ever since running a blade through her honey’s gut, she always placed her needs second where the world was concerned. It was as her calling demanded. Whenever she attempted to do something for herself, she felt the consequences for years. She was expected to give until she had nothing left, and that frustrated him to no end.
She jumped to save the world and wound up in Hell. There was no justification for that.
“I just…you say I didn’t die.”
Spike nodded. “You disappeared,” he answered, shuddering. That solid block of empty concrete would haunt him the rest of his days.
“Just…poof, no more Buffy?”
He nodded again.
“Do you think…if I had actually…if I died…”
He stopped short and turned to her, his eyes wide.
“Do you think…” Buffy worried a lip between her teeth. “Do you think I would have gone to Heaven?”
“Without a sodding doubt.”
She looked up at him askance. “Just like that?” she asked. “No mulling it over.”
Spike’s eyes narrowed. “You’re serious?”
“I jumped into a bunch of hell dimensions.”
“Yeah, love, we covered this. That’s why you’re here.”
“But if I died—”
“How you die means rot for where you end up, sweetheart,” he said, waving a hand. “Take yours truly. You really figure my soul’s damned because of how my human life ended?”
Buffy’s expression turned thoughtful. “I guess not,” she said slowly. “Your soul…”
“I can bloody well attest that nancy boy William wouldn’t have the stomach for the things I’ve done,” Spike replied, his hands sliding into his jean pockets. There were times he truly missed his duster. “Can’t blame him when he wasn’t present. My death was just that, you hear? Whatever happened to me before…I like to think my soul went somewhere cushy. Same goes for you, sweetheart. Doesn’t matter what you fall into. Body’s just a body. The soul goes where it’s supposed to go, and you would’ve gone straight up.”
She stood quiet a long minute, her eyes searching his as though seeking something she couldn’t name—a hidden lie in his words. She wouldn’t find one. No one living or dead deserved rest more than Buffy. She was the purest being he’d ever known, and had it gone another way, had she not disappeared, had there not been the certainty that she was trapped somewhere and banging on the walls for an escape, he would never have given the thought of her in Hell a fighting chance. Buffy outshone Hell. It might take her memories, but not who she was at the core.
She embodied the warrior and the woman. She always had.
At last, the shadows clouding her eyes lifted, and she gifted him with a sweet smile before closing the space between them. “I want to tell you I love you,” she said, kissing him.
It was a bloody good thing his heart didn’t beat; it would have been under attack. “Do you?” he replied, voice hoarse.
She nodded, kissing him again. “But I won’t.”
“Because you don’t want it to be gratitude.”
“I don’t want it to be gratitude.” Buffy smiled. The world alight in her smile. “I won’t tell you until I know it’s not gratitude.”
Spike offered her a half-grin, which spoke nothing of how hard his insides trembled. For something he’d wanted as long as he had, he thought there might be more pomp and circumstance, but there wasn’t. No bells, no whistles; rather, the heaviness that had weighed him down, trapping him in a place where the road diverged without a map, rolled into something light and wonderful. It might not be love she felt, even she hesitated to give it a label, but that was all right with him. She’d given him something wonderful, flooding him with warmth not touched before, and introducing him to levels of pleasure formerly unexplored.
“Thank you,” he said simply. The words seemed so meager compared to what he felt.
Buffy just grinned and kissed him again. He walked on air.
“So,” she said, tugging at his hand. They resumed their walk, the streets overly quiet. “Do you have any ideas?”
“On how we’re getting out?”
“Many. Each worse than the last.” Spike shrugged sheepishly. “Bloody told you, love…finding you was my only priority going in. Didn’t really fancy looking up escape routes.”
Buffy shivered at that. “I’ve tried most everything,” she said.
“We’ll find what you didn’t.”
She frowned thoughtfully. “You’ve already tried the way you got in, haven’t you?” she noted. “I remember going to the river and you…getting angry.”
He snickered. That seemed so long ago. “I had to crawl to get here,” he said, then paused. The reasons he had to crawl remained locked away alongside half a dozen other things he refused to tell her. “When I got to the end of the tunnel, it was just…bright and I fell.”
“You fell into Hell?”
“There was a cave, see, and a ledge. And when I took you back after I found you, it’d disappeared.” Spike sighed and kicked at the dust. “Figure that’s the only way in or out now. Just gotta find a way to make it come back.”
“Where something happened that you won’t tell me.”
He grinned. “Catching on, Slayer.”
“You know I’m not going to let up, don’t you?” Buffy asked softly. “I’ll keep asking until you tell me.”
“Well, fancy it’s a good thing you’re immortal, ‘cause forever’s what we’re looking at before I spill.”
“The things I imagine…” Her voice trailed off, and he did not follow. He didn’t want to know what she imagined, or how it compared to the reality of what had happened. The weight of what he’d sacrificed in the cave those three hundred years…or the knowledge he would do it again in a bloody heartbeat if asked.
Spike squeezed her hand. “Stop imagining.”
“It’s over now. Nothing can come from knowing what went down.”
“And I don’t need that. I know you appreciate me.”
It seemed so weird to say those words and feel the truth behind them. But he did—with every glance she cast his way, with every kiss that graced his lips, with every tentative smile, he felt how much she appreciated him. How much she cared.
How much she…
“At any rate,” he said, steering her to the left when they reached the end of the street. “I reckon it won’t be long before your friends decide to bollocks everything up.”
“I remember you talking about them.”
His jaw tightened. “Do you?”
“It was…before I remembered, and I don’t remember much but…you were angry.”
“Not angry, just frustrated.”
Buffy’s lips twitched. “With my friends? Almost hard to believe.”
Spike sighed. “The last I saw of them,” he said, “they were chattin’ about what to do since I hadn’t come through on my end of the bargain. Hadn’t made it back to them with you in tow, and they figured they’d waited long enough. Trouble is it’d only been those three days.”
“And you saw this?”
He nodded. “Larry showed me. He wanted me to see how much my…what I’d done meant to them. ‘Course, they didn’t know, right? They didn’t know it’d been three hundred years for me, or a bloody millennia for you. They were just looking out for you, love. They wanted…”
“They wanted immediate results.”
“Glad to know some things never change.” A smile lingered on her lips even if it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “It’s okay. They’ll know someday. What you did…what you’ve done…for me.”
“They don’t matter.”
“Not to you, maybe.”
Spike fell silent. No sense arguing with her. The good opinion of her friends, while a nice perk, had never been on his list of necessary accomplishments. The tentative solidarity he’d experienced wouldn’t last. It was the sort of camaraderie born out of survivor’s guilt, weak but memorable, even if it was short-lived. He might care about one or two of them in his own way, insofar as not wanting them to kick it, but they weren’t his priority, and if they cast him out he wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.
The only person who mattered was Buffy.
“As it is,” Spike continued after a long beat, “I reckon we have a good hundred years or so before we have to give your chums a lick of thought.”
Buffy worried a lip between her teeth. “Let’s try to be outta here before then.”
He smiled. “Couldn’t agree with you more.”
It took three sweeps of the abandoned city before they encountered a boar, and another thirty minutes to hunt it down and bash in its head. Spike had made a face, hoisted the beast onto his shoulder, offered a snappy comment, and followed Buffy back to the warehouse. From there, the day rolled by with lazy ease and casual conversation, all with the loom of the impending storm weighing over their heads.
The uncertainty of where the future would take them…of where to search for an escape.
“How do you know what to do?” Buffy asked, sitting cross-legged on the floor and watching with barely-guised disgust as Spike maneuvered a blade down the boar’s belly. Blood splattered, wafting deliciously up to his nostrils. He hadn’t been to the river since Buffy regained her memory; in the excitement, he’d forgotten his need for food.
It was all he could do to keep from lapping up the pooling blood. He didn’t think she’d appreciate the visual.
“What do you mean?” he asked instead, trying and failing to drag his eyes away.
“You gutted the animal.”
Spike shrugged. “Don’t they learn this in Boy Scouts?”
“How do you know?”
“You’re not a Boy Scout.”
“Yeah. Point of fact, neither are you.”
Buffy waved a hand. “I still know they don’t do this in Boy Scouts…unless the pack was led by Jeffrey Dahmer.”
“Yeah, well, I still bloody think I’ve earned the Merit Badge.”
A pause. “It’s okay, you know.”
He glanced up. “What?”
“If you want to eat, you can. You know…the blood.” Buffy watched him for a long second, shuffling subconsciously. “I mean, gross, but…it’s what you need, isn’t it?”
Spike stared at her dumbly, which only made her self-awareness more pronounced.
“What?” she asked.
“Ummm, well, yeah?”
His head tilted, his eyes widening before breaking away at last. The statement seemed so redundant. Of course she’d changed—they’d covered this. They’d both changed…he just kept having to remind himself of the fact. He’d had time to get used to his own maturing world views; Buffy’s would take a little time.
“Just…you never wanted me to eat blood in front of you before,” he noted.
Buffy frowned. “I was really dumb.”
“You’re a vampire. It’s kinda what you do.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to like it, kitten. Bees sting, but that doesn’t mean the buggers don’t annoy the piss outta you.”
Another long silence settled between them. Buffy’s eyes softened. “You’ve changed, too,” she said.
“Yeah,” Spike replied.
He didn’t know how many times they would have to repeat it before it sank in. He was an old dog, ancient, and she was even older, though time had aged her in ways he understood but couldn’t quite grasp. She was in the right when she accused him of judging her based on a mindset now a thousand years in the past, but God, it was so bloody strange, and it would take a while.
A long while.
But that was all right. They had time, and they had each other. They could learn.
Something in her voice had changed. Spike paused but didn’t look at her. “Yeah?”
“Tonight…do you want…”
He glanced up sharply. She’d turned pink, and God, she was the cutest thing he’d ever seen. He’d thought it before and he’d think it a million times more before he was dust. How she’d gone from noticing his talents with a blade, to thinking of a tangle between the sheets, was anyone’s guess, but he loved her for it. He loved her demeanor and her shyness and everything that marked her as the unique creature she was.
A slow grin drew across his face. “Better bloody believe it, sweetheart.”
“Anytime you wanna jump my bones, you’re more than free to—”
“I wasn’t sure.”
“Well, you’re the only other person in the world. I didn’t want to make things awkward.”
Spike’s eyes narrowed. “Also in love with you.”
She grinned. “Yeah. There’s also that.”
“You really weren’t sure?”
“No. I was sure.” Buffy rose to her feet and approached, kneeling when she reached him to brush a kiss across his lips. “You love me.”
“Mhmm. And you…”
“I want to tell you.”
“But you won’t.”
“Because it might be gratitude and you and I had a deal about that.”
Spike smiled. “That we did.”
And the fact that it remained as important to her as it was to him had him burning with hope.
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