DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'.  Too bad. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  The Soul Eaters are dead, Spike and Joyce are still unconscious, and Giles and Cortina are off to rescue her children…

*************

He was almost more nervous now than he had been waiting to see if Buffy would wake up.  Seeing the two demons---two children, he had to remind himself---trapped within the stasis of the crystal, Giles couldn't help but feel the familiar sense of helplessness wash over him as he heard Cortina's sharp intake of breath from near the door.

"You mustn't approach until I have dissolved the field," he reminded her, a quick glance at her thrown over his shoulder renewing his wish that he could take her into his arms just one more time before doing this.  "Until the crystals are in proximity of each other, you're still in danger from its properties."

"I know."  Her voice was hushed, her pale eyes locked on the pair at the center of the room.  It didn't seem real, to be standing there, about to take the children she'd thought she'd never see again back into her life.  Well, hopefully, back into her life.  Part of her was terrified that once the protective field that had been sustaining them this past century was gone, they would disintegrate before her eyes, and she'd be left alone again, unable to even give them one last good-bye because they would be gone, scattered as dust to the air like a memory incapable of being grasped.

She wasn't the only one frightened.  As he approached the children with the crystal hanging loosely at his side, Giles' anxiety was betrayed by the faintest of tremors in his hand.  This was so far from any reality he'd imagined for himself.  Yes, he loved Cortina, and yes, he wanted her happy no matter what the cost, but what could he possibly contribute to her future, if she was fortunate enough to be able to share it with her progeny?  She'd been so insistent on his power to do good for them, but he was not so convinced.  He could barely guide Buffy at the best of times, and she was human; how would he fare with two children who weren't?

They seemed so peaceful as he stopped at the edge of the beds, youth captured forever in innocence lost, and Giles felt the knot within his stomach loosen.  Just children.  Nothing to fear.  The hand with the crystal rose, hovered over the crackle of the stasis field, and slowly lowered again to rest it upon its companion on the dais between the Vroleks.

The dissolution of the magic came with a small spray of silvery sparks, scattering to the floor in a delicate shower that vanished at the first contact.  From behind him, a gurgled cry came from Cortina's throat, and he heard her rush forward, joining him at the bedsides, leaning over to automatically scoop the form of the young boy into her arms.  He couldn't see her face, but he knew if he could, it would be streaked with tears, her small frame rocking gently against the mattress.

He turned his attention to the other child, the young girl, and watched as the fragile rise and fall of her chest hitched for a moment, causing his own heart to constrict momentarily, before beginning its up and down motion again.  Alive.  She was alive.  Quentin had been wrong.  She seemed to be breathing satisfactorily on her own, and gently, Giles leaned forward, a long hand reaching to smooth back the hair from her forehead.

The contact of skin meeting skin was compounded by the careful lifting of the young girl's eyelids, excruciatingly slow as if weighed down by her years of slumber.  There was a moment of blankness, but almost immediately, cognizance lit her from within, locking on the face of the man above her.

The Watcher froze, captured by her aspect.

She had Cortina's eyes.  That could've been Cortina staring back at him.

And in the space of that single second, all his doubt fled on gossamer wings.

"We must get them out of here," Giles murmured, unable to tear his gaze away from the child before him.  "I don't trust Quentin's claim that we won't be in danger."

From her vantage by the door, Dolly straightened.  "Where to?" she asked.

Cortina turned her head to see the Englishman carefully scoop the frail form of her daughter into his arms.  Their eyes locked, hers shimmering, his finally understanding, and the corner of her mouth lifted.  "I'd like to go home now," she said softly.

"Home," Giles repeated.  Both of them knew it wasn't the location of it that mattered; it could've just as easily been Sunnydale as Cortina's caves.  What mattered was that they would be going there together.  "Yes.  That sounds like an excellent idea."

*************

She had moved him into their old room at Cortina's, waiting for him to awaken.  Willow had explained what exactly had happened while they'd been asleep, complete with Giles' theory about their souls going into a sort of limbo, but Buffy had to admit that none of it really made any sense to her.  All she knew was that Spike was asleep, and she was awake, and she was less certain than ever that she was ever going to have him back again.

He wasn't the only one still out of it.  Though Joyce was breathing, she remained in what resembled a coma, and Dawn was standing vigil at her side, waiting just as Buffy was, ready to alert anyone should the eldest Summers woman show signs of regaining consciousness.  They had known this would be a danger in trying the resurrection spell, and surprisingly enough, Dawn was handling it quite well, taking the burden of worry about their mother away from her older sister so that the Slayer could concentrate on Spike.  Not that that really worked for Buffy.  She was still deathly afraid for Joyce.  But, having someone else do the hovering for a change allowed her to be there for the vampire without fear of missing something should it happen.

It had been almost two days since Buffy had killed the Soul Eaters.  When Giles had returned with Cortina, the first thing he had done was go to his Slayer's side, confirming she was all right, helping her in transporting Spike and Joyce to more comfortable quarters.  Though the urge to talk with him about what she had learned about Spike was great, Buffy stifled it, partly because she was reluctant to divulge the vampire's secrets without his permission, partly because she saw his growing distance from her once he realized she was well.  Cortina's children were awake, but frail, not speaking, and Giles very obviously wished to be at his lover's side in tending to them.  So she let him, watched him hurry away, and felt an odd pang of sorrow as he did so, as if a door had been closed between them.

The first thing Buffy had done when it looked like Spike wouldn't be waking soon was go to sleep herself, hoping that she could reach him within their dreams as she had done before.  It hadn't worked.  Only everyday, normal dreams greeted the Slayer once she drifted away, and no amount of searching on her part revealed any sign of the vampire, conscious or not.

This is what frightened her more than anything.  Though she had latched on to the explanation that maybe the battle with the Soul Eaters had severed the connection they had shared, that that was why she couldn't find him now, part of her dwelled on a different possibility, one much bleaker, one that shadowed her world in gray and forced her to consider what returning to the Hellmouth alone might be like. 

Perhaps there was nothing left there for her to find, she thought.  Perhaps the interruption of Willow's spell destroyed the essence of Spike's mind so that all I'm left with is this shell.  What would I do then?

So she waited, tending to his wounds until they were gone, talking to him as if he could hear every word she said, curling against him when she grew tired of just sitting there.  The touching almost made it worse, an aching reminder that what she missed was the spirit of the vampire, not his body, and wished that he would just open his eyes and say something horribly inappropriate to her, maybe chide her for being foolish, or drop a sexual innuendo about their current positions…anything.  She just needed to hear his voice.

When it came, it came as a whisper, the slightest of currents floating through the strands of her hair as she rested her head on his chest.  "You smell like rain," Spike murmured, and moved for the first time in two days, lifting just enough to nuzzle the top of her head.

"Spike?" Buffy whispered, stiffening in disbelief against him.  Slowly, her neck twisted, turning to gaze back at the blond vampire, seeing his dark lashes seem even starker against his sunken cheeks, reminding her yet again that he hadn't eaten in as long either.  She almost thought that she was hallucinating; it certainly wouldn't have surprised her after everything that happened over the past few weeks.  But there he was, head moving almost imperceptibly as he drowned himself in her scent, and she felt her world begin to glow again with hope.

Almost afraid to try, Buffy opened her mind, allowing a tenuous filament to stretch into the darkness between them, and immediately was met by a glorious light, a vibrant dance of reds and oranges and yellows that burned into her retinas, making her blink even though it wasn't tangible.  The link was still there, and somehow, stronger than before, and before she could even think, she had flipped herself around, smothering him with her body, burying her face in the hollow of his neck as she clung to him.

"Don't you ever do that to me again!" she demanded, her voice muffled against his skin.

Spike chuckled.  "Good to see you, too, pet."

Though his arms came up around her, Buffy could feel the weakness in his muscles, the tendons tremoring from the mild exertion, and carefully lifted herself away to look down at him.  "You need to eat something," she said.  "You've been out of it for two days."

"That it?"  His brow furrowed.  "Huh.  Would've sworn it felt like longer."

"That would be whacked out dream-time for you," she explained.  "Know all the memory stuff?  Only took about ten or fifteen minutes, according to Willow."  As she started to push herself off, his arms tightened, stopping her motion.  Her hazel gaze was curious when she looked back at him.  "What?"

"Don't go yet," he said softly, eyes fathomless.  She could feel the gentle need rolling off him and softened as he added, "Food's not nearly as important as us…talking."

The question in her mind reached out and she saw him physically wince at the contact, lids fluttering closed as he rested his head back against the pillow.  "Know it's easier that way, luv," he said, "but can we not play at the head games for now?  Just a bit knackered, is all, and after everything…"  He let the thought trail off, knowing instinctively she would understand what he was referring to.

"Sure, whatever you say, Spike."  Small teeth worried at her bottom lip as Buffy just watched him, perching her chin up on her hand as she felt his presence along the outskirts of her consciousness.  With his eyes closed, it would've been simple to mistake him for sleeping again, but the reassuring caress of his thoughts drifting around hers told her otherwise, lulling her into a fresh comfort that had escaped her for what seemed forever.  "What did you want to talk about?" she asked.

He took a long time to answer her, and she wondered if he was selecting his words, fearful that the wrong ones would provoke an unwanted response.  When he finally spoke, his eyes opened, blue boring into her with a gravity that could've been William's, and she found herself musing on how much of the young Victorian remained within the vampire's mind.

"I feel like a right prat for havin' to ask," Spike said, his tone solemn, "but…Red's spell…I know it didn't run its course like I expected and I'm sorry for that.  If I could go back and change it, I would.  But…what you saw…what I…what I did."  His voice broke slightly as he stumbled over his words.  "Does it change anything?"

"You mean…do I still love you?"  The downcast of his lashes was the only affirmation she needed.  Gently, she lifted her free hand and began drawing imaginary letters along his bare chest.  "My feelings aren't on tap like hot and cold water, you know.  I can't just turn them on and off whenever I want."

"But…what happened…it might color them."  He paused.  "And I just need to know if---."

"If anything, it makes me love you all the more," she said.  And it was true.  She'd never have thought it possible before, but being alone with him over the past two days had given Buffy time to assimilate what had happened, and more than ever before, she found herself respecting the vampire for what he'd had to endure.  Some people took pain and used it as an excuse to turn themselves into monsters; others, like William, did what they could to make themselves stronger.  Though she doubted pre-vamp Spike would've agreed with her, she saw his attempts at creating beauty in the world admirable, his desires to assure the safety and happiness of those he cared about---even to his own detriment---worthy of deference. 

"What you had to go through," she continued.  "I can't even imagine how you were as strong as you were.  If my mom…"  She stopped, shook her head.  She didn't want to have to think about Joyce at the moment.  It was Spike time.  He deserved her full attention.  "Not the point.  The point is, I didn't see anything in your memories that shocked me any more than some of the other things you did, Spike.  I mean, knowing what you were feeling when you killed those other Slayers?"  She grimaced, her tiny nose wrinkling in distaste, her mouth a tiny moue as she tried to show him she was teasing.  "Just a tad higher on the ick factor, if you ask me."

"That was different," he argued.  "That was me, all evil and bein' Mr. Vampire.  What you saw…that was William.  The man.  There's no excuse for that."

"William made a choice.  A pretty hard one.  And as far as I'm concerned, the right one."

"How can you say that?  I killed my father, Buffy."

"So did Angel."

"But as a vampire.  I did it as a man."  He was starting to get agitated.  "There's a world of difference between the two, and don't you go blinkering yourself into sayin' there's not."

"I'm not.  But...innocent baby or violent sadist?  I don't really see how you could've done it any other way.  I was there, remember?  There was no way you could've saved both of them."  Buffy grabbed his chin, forcing his head to turn so that he had to look at her.  "I would've made the exact same choice."

She expected the silence that followed her statement to have been uncomfortable, but for some reason, Spike accepted her words at face value, taking them in with the absorbency of a dry sponge and allowing them to calm his nerves.  "I killed Melly, you know," he finally said softly.

"I know," Buffy said. 

"How?"

"The Soul Eater told me when I was trying to kill her.  Not that that thrills me, but…I get it.  The why, I mean."

"I didn't touch…my sister."

"I know that, too.  And it changes nothing, Spike.  I love you now, I'm going to love you tonight when we finally get to curl up and have a decent night's sleep, and I'm going to love you tomorrow when the sun comes up.  Does that finally answer your question?"

His reply was a gentle kiss feathered across her brow, his hands sliding to her armpits to pull her up his body, stretching her out on top of him so that their eyes were level.  "I'm so sorry," he murmured.

Buffy sighed, leaning her forehead against his.  "Stop apologizing.  You don't have anything to be sorry about."  Her lips brushed against his as her arms came up to curl around his shoulders.  Before she could deepen it, though, Spike had pulled himself away, forcing her to look at him as he spoke.

"Yeah, I do," he said, and though he had protested earlier about exhaustion preventing him from allowing her full entry into his head, Spike lowered the barriers around his emotions for a moment so that she could understand why.  "I should've trusted in you from the get go.  You gave me that courtesy, even before you said you loved me, and here I go, thinkin' you can't do the same."

"It's all behind us," Buffy murmured, grateful for the few seconds in the maelstrom of his feelings that he allowed her.  "Nobody said this was going to be easy.  Heck, I'm the queen of difficult relationships, so I should know what I'm talking about here.  What's important is that we try and not keep making the same mistake.  Not that that's the voice of experience, but hey, it always sounds good when Mom says it, so I figure…what the hell."

"Sounds good to me," Spike agreed.  "Always thought your mum had her head on straight.  Nice to know some of it got passed on."

The mention of Joyce brought a sad gleam to the Slayer's eyes.  "She's still not conscious," she said quietly.  "The resurrection spell worked in that she's at least alive, but we don't know if she's going to wake up."

His hand brushed back the hair that fell over her cheek, his touch tender.  "She will," he assured.  "Don't you fuss.  She's goin' to come out of this, and the lot of you are goin' to go back to bein' the same bunch of infuriating Summers women that I love so damn much."

She believed him.  She wasn't sure why, maybe it was the warmth that radiated from his thoughts, the belief that he knew something more than he was sharing at the moment suddenly overwhelming.  Regardless, Buffy nestled down against him, closing her eyes as she let the fears and worries wash away.

Things weren't going to be easy.  They still had to deal with the issue of Glory when they returned to Sunnydale, and there was still the inherent problem in dating a vampire in the first place---although she was sure Giles was going to have a field day delving into the issue of Spike's newly re-acquired soul---as well as the usual issues in just having a relationship, period.  But, in spite of all that, Buffy didn't fear that she and Spike were going to fail in overcoming them.

Because they had faced their ghosts.  Battled them together.

And won.

Their love didn't mean life wasn't going to be trouble-free.

It meant she didn't have to face those troubles alone, that he would share his strength with her, while she did the same for him, and together, they would beat the problems away, saving their friends, saving their family, saving the world.

She couldn't have asked for anything more.

The End