"Where did the flowers come from?" Buffy asked with a sigh, flopping into a hard plastic chair next to her mother's hospital bed. She was exhausted, both physically and emotionally from her confrontation with the Scoobies, and she was pretty sure that nothing but a good mother-daughter pep talk could cheer her up now.

When they'd finally gotten Giles, Willow, Xander, and Anya out the door, Buffy had immediately packed up a few things for her mom and grabbed the keys to head to the hospital, but Dawn had insisted on staying home, on finishing the interrupted cleaning so that the house would be ready in case Joyce was released the next day. Buffy was a little surprised at how well her mother looked and thought that perhaps Dawn might have been right after all, that she would be able to come home early. Her eyes were a bit brighter, she was sitting up in bed, and she looked refreshed as if she'd actually gotten a good night's sleep. There was a large-print crossword puzzle open on the little lap desk in front of her, and in the windowsill beside her was a large bouquet in a beautiful crystal vase that hadn't been there the day before.

"Oh I think they must be from Spike," her mother replied, gazing at the large spray of pink, purple, and white flowers all fresh and pale and gathered together with a silky, soft grey ribbon. "They were here when I woke up."

"How do you know they're from him?" Buffy asked, her heart melting just a little as she got up and crossed to the window, certain that her mother was right even without the justification.

"He visited last night," her mother replied as she ruffled gently through the blooms, releasing a burst of delicate, honeyed fragrance into the air as she searched for a card. "It was sweet, really - he brought me cocoa and stayed until I fell asleep, and when I woke up the flowers were there in the window. They're beautiful, aren't they?" she remarked quietly, and Buffy hummed in reply, finally plucking a card from beneath the ribbon at the back of the vase.

Feel better soon luv. Need you home where you belong. What kind of a vampire will you have made me into if I had to keep all those mushy good-guy promises?

Mouth quirked, Buffy turned around to find her mother resting back against the pillows, a small smile on her face and her eyes closed.

"Mom?" she said quietly, and extended the card when Joyce sat up to accept it. Skimming the message, her smile grew tremulous as she lifted a shaking hand to her lips, a single tear rolling down her cheek as she pressed the little card to her breast. "Momma what's wrong?"

"Nothing sweetie," Joyce sniffled, her smile turning wide and sunny as she wiped her cheeks and brushed Buffy's anxious hands away. "Absolutely nothing."

"Hmph," Buffy grumbled, eyeing her mother shrewdly as she sat back down, not missing the way the woman tucked the card carefully beneath her pillow. "So. What kind of promises is Spike making?"

"Oh, nothing," Joyce deflected, waving her hand airily, but there was a small, secret smile on her face that was more than a little suspicious. "I was just being silly, that's all."

"Well you look a lot better mom," she said gently. "Did you sleep ok up here?"

"Very well in fact," she replied. "But sweetie, are you all right? You seem…"

"Yeah," Buffy chuckled bitterly when her mother couldn't finish the sentence. "I am."

"What happened?"

"Well," she huffed, slumping down in her chair again and resting her cheek on her fist. "Giles and the guys finally decided to check in. I wasn't too happy with them to start but then they came over and everybody was talking and getting on my nerves and…"

Buffy sighed, frowned.

"I don't get them sometimes," she mumbled finally. "It's like they want me to be a robot, or a little kid or something. And maybe that's not… exactly right, but it feels that way. Like they think they need to protect me and if they can decide what I do or don't do they can keep me safe, keep me doing what I need to do. Keep me working."

"I'm sure they don't mean to make you feel that way sweetheart," Joyce murmured, reaching a hand out across the blankets which Buffy took, squeezed gently.

"I know that," she admitted quietly. "But it still feels that way. And I can't do that mom. I can't be that."

"And you shouldn't," he mom said firmly, eyes flinty when Buffy raised her head to meet her gaze. "Buffy, you've never cowed to anyone. Not to the fate the world forced on you, not to the Counsel you're responsible to, certainly not to me." Leaning forward, Joyce cupped her cheek. "Buffy, you've never been the perfect daughter," she said with a smile, "Or the perfect Slayer either. But honey, nobody's perfect, and I could not be more proud of you. Couldn't love you more."

"Thanks mom," Buffy whispered, he voice hoarse with the tears that threatened, her chest tight with emotion.

"You're perfect just the way you are, baby," she murmured. "You can't let anyone take that away from you. Even the people you love."

"I guess you'd be proud of me then," Buffy chuckled a bit hysterically, sitting back and scrubbing the tear tracks from her cheeks. "I told them all off pretty good."

Encouraged by her mother's smile, Buffy regaled her with the whole sordid tale; how she'd reached the end of her rope at last, her emotions exploding like a shook-up can of soda with her declaration, as she went after each one of them in turn. How she'd yelled and accused, told Giles and Willow to stop trying to mold her and just support her, told Xander to butt out of her dating life only to be supported in that by Anya. The argument had lasted almost two hours and had been harsh and heated - Buffy, her sister, and the ex-vengeance-demon against the rest, arguing back and forth with voices raised. They had moved almost seamlessly from a battle of wills, a battle of control for her own life, to a smash-book of a petition against Spike, and that was what had infuriated her the most.

Joyce listened with a sympathetic ear and Buffy could see the anger flare up in her mother too as she listed out the arguments against the vampire. He was untrustworthy, he'd fought with them in the past, he was manipulative and had to be plotting something. Of course there were the old favorites too - he was a vampire, he had no soul, yadda, yadda, yadda. Those were the worst and Anya had gotten so mad at that point that she'd almost left, but had stayed when Dawn leapt viciously to the defense. The two of them had fought back passionately against those statements, pointing out that souled humans did terrible things every day and that Spike had more than proven his commitment to the group in the last few years, even more so in the last few days, but in the end Buffy had gotten entirely fed up, laid down the law that she would be making her own decisions, whether that was with regard to her love life or otherwise, and ushered them all out the door.

They could either get over it and stand behind her or not.

At the time it had been an easy ultimatum to make because her emotions had been hot and high and she hadn't really believed, not in the slightest that her friends would opt for the latter, but there in the hospital room the fear came jumping up in her, icy cold and frightening. It took a good deal of time for her mother to calm her down again, to reassure her that her friends might be upset with her but they wouldn't abandon her. They might be angry, afraid, and confused, but that wouldn't be enough to scare off the Watcher and the teenagers who had stood by her side for so long, faced off against forces of darkness few others ever met with.

Though strongly reassured by her mother, Buffy's tears and muffled sobbing had drawn the attention of the nurses in the hallway, who had called Joyce's surgeon down. The young man seemed a bit shocked by the state of the pair he found waiting for him, even a little spooked, and Buffy quickly excused herself to the little bathroom cubicle attached to splash her face with cool water and clean herself up a bit. Once she'd re-emerged the doctor set to explaining a bit more thoroughly the information she'd already been given - that her mother's tumor had been completely removed and that scans showed she was recovering well, that all her vitals were normal and she was in very good health give her recent cerebral accident. While nothing was certain yet, the hospital believed that she would be able to return home sometime within the next three days, as long as she stayed calm and quiet and came in for check-ups frequently, and that was reassuring too.

After he'd left, Buffy sat with her mother a little longer, shared a quiet conversation while Joyce ate a small dinner of soft things - mashed potatoes and Jell-O and applesauce. It was good to see her mom with an appetite, awake and alert and happy, and it was calming in a way she hadn't expected it to be. They talked about little things, pointless things, Buffy being careful not to let her emotions get the best of her again. Finally evening started to fall and she knew she'd avoided going home as long as she could, so she kissed her mother's forehead and said her goodbyes.

"I'm proud of you Buffy," she said quietly. "For standing up for yourself. For what you want. And for telling your friends."

"Told everybody but the guy who needs to hear it most," she smiled sadly.

"Then tell him."

"I don't know where he is mom," she whispered, suddenly choking up all over again. "I can't find him."

"Go home sweetie," Joyce smiled. "I'm sure he'll turn up."

"But what if he doesn't believe me when I tell him?"

"Then you show him. Sometimes actions speak louder than words. If for some reason he doesn't believe the things you say, then you prove them. And sweetie, it might be hard, and it might be tough, but I think it will be worth it in the end."

Smiling tearily, Buffy took her mom's hand and squeezed.

"I think so too mom."

Half an hour later Buffy was pulling up in front of Revello drive and parking the Jeep out front, slumping back in the driver's seat for just a minute as she tried to summon the energy to drag herself inside. She was tired, very tired, and wanted nothing more in that moment than to just crawl into her bed and go to sleep. Or maybe just sleep right there in the car. The seats reclined - that could work.

But the lights of the house were glowing warmly behind the curtains, calling to her, and some peanut-butter toast with a cup of cocoa to dunk it in was sounding pretty good too. Grumbling and groaning, she dragged herself out of the car and up the front steps, let herself in and immediately froze, immense happiness and utter relief hitting her so hard that her knees almost buckled.

Spike was flopped upside down on her living room couch, his head hanging over the seat and his feet dangling over the back by the window while Dawn bounced around at his side. He had a huge grin on his face, his eyes sparkling blue, and there was some kind of a remote control that she didn't recognize clutched in his hands, balanced on his belly as his thumbs flew over the buttons. Dawn seemed to have one too, and just as Buffy's eyes flicked to the television screen where little cartoon cars were zipping around a rainbow colored track, her sister leapt up from the couch, stamping her feet as Spike burst into laughter, deep and clear and honest.

"No, no, no!" she yelped, waving the controller of the beat-up, grey and purple console that had appeared on their coffee table beside a mountain of cleaning products. "You big cheat!"

"Cheat?" Buffy finally spoke up with a grin, stepping into the living room. "Dawn, he's upside down."

"Yeah and he's still winning," she complained, dropping back down onto the couch without taking her eyes off the television screen. "But that's the best handicap I could come up with without blindfolding him."

"Sorry lil Bit," Spike chuckled from his lopsided spot beside her. "It's those vampire reflexes. Want me to let you win the next one?"

"No!" she huffed indignantly, booting up another game, this one with a pixelated beach theme.

"All right," he huffed with a smile, finally rolling upright, careful of his heavy boots. "Come on then Slayer; your turn."

Buffy looked at the proffered controller with an eyebrow cocked doubtfully but stepped forward and took it all the same, waiting until Spike had settled again on the couch, right-side-up this time, before she sat too. He froze when she sank into the cushions next to him, close enough that their bodies touched, brushed together shoulder to elbow, hip to knee, and from the corner of her eye she saw him swallow hard. It took a second but he finally relaxed beside her, breathed out and turned his attention back to the TV.

"What is this?" she asked, scanning the two little characters idling in their cars.

"Super Mario Kart, and it's awesome!" Dawn cheered in sing-song. "Spike brought it over. I'm on top - that's Princess Peach. You're on the bottom."

"Who am I?" she asked, skeptical of the little dragon dude on the bottom half of the screen.

"Koopa," Spike replied, eyes glued to the TV and a deprecating sort of smirk. "Resident bad guy of the lot."

Buffy tilted her head, considered.

"I like him," she decided firmly.

Turning in surprise, Spike stared at her intently like she was a book he couldn't quite read, but she just smiled back and the moment was shaken off as he pointed out the controls matter-of-factly and gave her advice as she battled to stay ahead of Dawn on the little race track. His vampire reflexes might've been far superior to her human sister's, but apparently Buffy's Slayer speed wasn't enough to push her little go-kart ahead to the finish line. After losing two rounds and accepting the good-nature teasing that accompanied those losses, she handed the controller back to the vampire and used his knee to push herself to her feet, ignored the stunned gaze she could feel lingering between her shoulder blades as she went into the kitchen.

Moving around quietly as she made herself the plate of peanut butter toast she'd been craving, Buffy listened with a smile to the tinny music and excited giggled coming from the other room, the low rumble of Spike's laughter. This was the part that the Scoobies didn't understand, the part that they didn't see. They didn't see him take her mother flowers and make her secret promises that she pressed close to her heart, or see him dig up an old video game for her sister when he knew she needed the distraction.

But she supposed she couldn't stay mad at them for that.

She hadn't seen it either.

Frowning, her appetite suddenly gone with a bite halfway to her mouth, Buffy sighed and pushed her plate away, looked wistfully at the door to the living room.

She knew what she needed to do, what she wanted to do, but she still didn't know how.

Suddenly flooded with anxiety and insecurities, Buffy practically fled to the back door, slipping outside onto the porch, desperate for a breath of fresh air. Outside of the house she felt far less confined, the weight of the walls no longer pressing in on her from all sides, and a full-body shudder trembled down over her limbs as she shook off those heady emotions like a dog shook water. She wasn't afraid that she couldn't do this - she could, she was the Slayer for heaven's sake! She just… wanted to do it the right way.

Sinking down onto the steps, she looked out across the yard, remembered how this whole thing had started, with a silly stake-out and a ridiculous bet that had turned out to be so much more significant than she'd ever thought it would be, the memory of which brought a soft smile to her face tonight. The evening was crisp and clear, the sky above her head a deep, dark indigo studded with chips of light. A light breeze carried the pleasant sweetness of lilac to her from the edge of the lawn, but in her skirt and short sleeves it was just a bit cool and goosebumps were quick to spread in a tingling rush over her bare skin.

Shifting uncomfortably, she pulled her knees in to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, stilling when she heard the door click behind her and heard the boards of the porch creak. He didn't speak but her senses knew it was Spike, and seconds later his heavy duster was draped over her shoulders, warm from the house and spiced with the light scent of cigarettes and bourbon.

"Thank you," she murmured in the dark as she pulled the lapels in tight, as he sank down next to her on the steps and rested his elbows on his knees. "Did Dawn go to bed?"

"Yeah," he answered, his voice quiet and rough with what sounded like uncertainty. "Few minutes ago."

For a moment they sat in silence, Buffy fiddling with the cuffs of his jacket nervously as she stared down at her shoes, and sight of the neon pink paint spattered across the toes of Spike's scruffy leather boots split her face into a smile that she buried in her hands.

"How's mum?" he asked, staring off across the yard and missing her near-outburst of giggles.

"Fine," she answered, straightening up and scooting closer so that she could lean against his side as a sweet warmth filled up her chest. She felt him stiffen minutely, but then almost immediately he turned to better angle toward her and hesitantly made to put his arm around her. When he finally got up the nerve to let it settle across her shoulders, she snuggled into the embrace, rested her head against the hollow of his shoulder even as she felt his surprise stutter in his chest.

"She got some really pretty flowers that she loves," she went on, and that seemed to calm him down a little, to distract him from the tension of insecurity tightening his muscles. "You didn't steal them did you?" she asked playfully.

"No," he huffed with mild indignation and Buffy smiled. "Your mum deserves better than that. Besides, I've got plenty of dosh, few nights in Vegas..."

"Sounds like fun," she said quietly, and then immediately regretted it because he went perfectly rigid beside her before withdrawing his arm awkwardly and clasping his hands together.

"Needed a few nights away," he muttered, almost inaudibly, and Buffy couldn't stop herself from laying a hand on his forearm.

He didn't flinch, but he didn't respond either.

"Spike, I can't even tell you how much I regret saying that stuff," she whispered, her throat tight. "I wish I'd never…" Wiping at her eyes, she sucked in a hard breath, tried to calm her suddenly racing heart as she hugged herself hard underneath his coat. Forcing herself to lift her face to his, she found him looking back with an intense blue gaze all full of hurt and fear and hope that it made her chest ache.

"Spike, I am so sorry," she mumbled.

"Already said that," he replied gruffly a minute later. "Anyway. Stakes and stones luv," he shrugged, but then it went further and he was pulling her back into his side and it felt like forgiveness and friendship and the best thing she'd ever felt in her whole life. "Not the first week I've lost to booze and poker. Seems like I missed a good time here though."

"Oh sure," Buffy chuckled, thinking back to those hazy, anxiety-filled days. "Quashing a teenage nerd uprising, real exciting stuff."

Beside her Spike huffed a laugh.

"Takes all kinds I guess."


For the next few minutes they sat in silence, enjoying the quiet and the calm of the night around them, Spike holding her close, and slowly the exhaustion began to creep back in on Buffy. She found herself beginning to doze right there on the porch, felt safe and strangely cherished there in her backyard. It was in the quiet calm that it came to her, the way to say it, the way to prove it.

Covering a yawn, she returned Spike's cautious smile before pushing to her feet, pushing her arms properly into the sleeves of his duster as he followed.

"I'll run another patrol tonight," he said, reaching out slowly without meeting her eyes and adjusting the collar of the jacket. "You need to get some sleep Buffy."

And it was her name, the one he so rarely said, that gave her courage.

"Thanks," she said quietly, biting her lower lip, and then she couldn't hold it in anymore and the words just kind of popped out. "So um, what are you doing… Friday?"

Spike froze from where he'd started to back up, back away, and stared at her with a confused sort of look that almost had her in giggles.

"Don't have any plans," he said slowly, carefully after a heavy beat of silence. "What…"

"Great," she smiled, and maybe it was a little too wide and a little too bright but she was bluffing ok? "Pick me up at seven?"


Ok. Ok, ok, ok, she could do this. Her heart was going a hundred miles a minute but she could do this.

"You won Spike," she said, and even if it was a little anxious and a little shaky, it was honest, and at least she'd finally gotten it out there. "I lost. And… I'm glad I did."

Screwing up all her courage, she stepped forward and curled herself close beneath the arc of his body, fisted her hand in his t-shirt and pulled him in even closer. Staring into shocked eyes, she stretched up on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his cheek, just catching the corner of his mouth, and it was warm and gentle and perfect and for just a second she thought she could feel his heart pound his chest as hope and realization dawned.

"You were right Spike," she repeated, stepping back toward the house and putting her hand on the door. "You do make pretty good date material."