TITLE: Offerings (1/?)

SUMMARY: The intensity of his love terrifies her. She thinks she doesn't want that kind of responsibility. Knows she doesn't deserve it. Wonders if she has anything to offer in return.

Otherwise known as, "My Contribution to Bub and Ceit's Bitey Fanfic Challenge".

DEDICATION: To everyone on Fanforum. You guys rock! And especially to BubonicPlague1348, for the confidence-boosting support, and BuffyX, for being a kick-ass beta if ever there was one.

SPOILERS: Through Showtime

RATING: I'm somewhat unsure of US ratings, but likely an R all up. This part is PG-13.

ARCHIVING: Want. Take. Have. But I'd love it if you dropped me a line so I can go check you out.

FEEDBACK: Yes please. Email me: Onetwomany@bigpond.com, or feel free to PM me on FF, where I post as 'Sabre'.

DISCLAIMER: Not mine, and I'm not worth suing.

PROLOGUE

She'd found him trussed and hanging from the cave wall. Scabby holes through his wrists, arms stained with rusted red, skin raw beneath the leather bindings. Standing, watching, Buffy had been so hit by such an intense sense of unreality, of relief, that for a spare moment she had been unable to move. Instead, she had stared with fascinated horror at the carvings of intricate and agonizing beauty that were etched into his chest and stomach, and then at marks of a less artistic nature that marred his delicate face. Black and bloodied eye, cracked lips, chipped bones, broken jaw. Another litany of pain and damage, heightened still more when his swollen tongue had formed fearful, defensive words of bluster and denial.

In that uncertain moment, frozen and waiting for the inevitable flood of motion and emotion, Buffy had recalled a childhood memory. She had seen herself standing in a darkened church, gazing up at the image of a tortured man, watching flickering candlelight dance across a calm yet tormented face. Her small hand had been clasped tightly in her nanna's withered fingers as she listened intently to a tale of sin and suffering and redemption, about a saviour who had been crucified in order that she be saved.

But the allusion had been fleeting. Spike wasn't suffering for someone else's sins; not when he had so many of his own to grapple with. And while crucifixion may have been a punishment of criminals, as well as sons of God, Buffy knew this torture had not been about justice, that it couldn't even the score. It was a sick, twisted parody, designed by a creature that Buffy had immediately determined, with doubtless certainty, was going down.

Her procrastination had lasted but moments, before she'd remembered the knife in her hand, the purpose in her being there. She'd cut him down, helped him walk out of the eerie basement, through the silent school halls, into the cool night air. She'd been acutely aware of her arm around him, of the proximity of their bodies, of her skin against his. He'd been so cold, much colder than the crisp night air, his body empty of the blood that gave a him a kind of life.

The journey had been painful and utterly silent except for the occasional gasp of pain and the jarring, vaguely sickening sound of crunching ribs. Shell-shocked and battered herself, Buffy had been unable to find even words of comfort, afraid that once she started, she wouldn't be able to stop, that the walls that protected her heart would come tumbling down beneath the whirlwind of released emotion.

So much to say, but nothing to be said.

Yet, as she'd looked into the face of her rescued vampire while she helped him climb painfully into the passenger's seat of her mother's Jeep, Buffy had seen such relief and adoration and love reflected in his silent countenance that her own dampened with tears.

The walls around her heart had shuddered, but still held.

The rescue had been Buffy's crusade alone. She had driven to the school herself, unable to ask her friends to join her, unsure of how they would even respond. But, when she met his gaze beneath the pale streetlights, felt the intensity of his emotions, Buffy had been glad she was alone. What transpired in that carpark had been a special moment for the two of them, a private confirmation of their tentative and painful friendship.

"I knew you'd come for me," he'd said then, his voice cracking but determined.

"And I knew you'd wait," she'd replied evenly.

She had smiled slightly at him, reaching up to tentatively brush his cheek. He'd leaned into her touch, eyes closing, drawing comfort from a gentle, tangible connection. Perhaps the first he'd ever known with a soul. Finally she'd broken the contact, closed the passenger-side door and climbed into her side of the vehicle.

"Come on Spike," she'd said, throwing the car into drive, "We're going home".

CHAPTER 1

Half an hour ago, as they drove back along silent streets, it had all had seemed so easy, the distance between finding him and coming home calculable in mere miles. But now, standing on the threshold to her house, her arm still firmly around Spike's narrow waist, Buffy understands that the journey can not be measured with such precision. The barriers between the then and now are less tangible, more mutable. And yet, oh, so very real.

Reality hits harder than a Fyarl Demon's punch.

Dawn stands before them in the hall, eyes narrowed, arms crossed, her stance defensive. Sentinel and guard against vampire corruption. Xander's little helper.

"What is he doing here?" she asks, voice petulant.

"Dawn, I don't have time..."

"You never do."

"I can't do this Dawn. Not tonight." And Buffy wonders if she can do any of this. She's never been a quitter, but sometimes it is just all too much. The angry, resentful little sister, the wounded, lost vampire clasped in her arms, the inexperienced and vulnerable Potentials, the friends who expect too much of her. All are in her home, her life, invading her sleep as she tosses and turns and looks for answers that always elude her.

"Please, Dawn," she says tightly, trying to keep the aggravated edge out of her voice, "not tonight. I want him here. It's my choice. Okay?"

"Well, I don't." Her voice is cold and sharp as ice. "And I have to live here too, you know."

Buffy almost laughs at that. As if she needs reminding that everybody lives here now. Her mother's house has become home to more and more, even as it falls down around them. Smashed windows, busted doors, fried microwave and shattered television; the ruined trappings of the not-quite-suburban life she had clung to after her mother's death.

Too tired, too emotionally drained to start a fight now, Buffy settles for the easier alternative. "Dawn, it's really not any of your business."

Instantly, she knows she's hit a sore spot. Dawn's eyes narrow even more, and the explosion follows. "How can you say that? How can you think I shouldn't care that you're letting your attempted rapist into our house?"

Too late, Buffy feels Spike stiffen beside her, muffle a groan, and begin to shrink back. Her instinct is to tighten her grip on him, but she stops herself, fearing she will only hurt him more. Instead, she lays her free hand on his bicep, moves herself even closer, though space is already a premium between them. He's still stiff as a board, but he halts his retreat. Her hold on him remains, and she hopes that it is enough to keep him from falling.

Still standing on the threshold, Buffy feels the first stirring of something unfamiliar and discomforting. Desperation, the need for peace and to end this now. The sudden need to protect Spike from her sister's words is startling, but she sets the feeling aside, stores it where it can be examined in more reasonable times. Forfeiting words, she catches Dawn's gaze, and a new, silent contest begins.

Spike watches the battle of wills with distracted and blurred disinterest. So hard to focus, so bloody painful. He can't bring himself to even care who wins, isn't sure he even knows who is right. What is he doing here, where he is so clearly unwanted, being comforted by the woman whom he has hurt so profoundly? Oh, he had known she would come; he had clung to that belief with every inch of his being. But this kindness, this apparent desire to heal him, this was unexpected, and brought its own form of torment.

Smuggled in the cargo hold of a jerky cargo plane, newly soulled and barely cogent, Spike had taunted himself with visions of his unwelcome return to Sunnydale. Had girded himself to face his love's hatred and anger, planned to watch from afar, to do what he could to help, until she caught him and drove a stake through his heart. He had never expected that he would again be so close at her side, her hip resting against his, her scent engulfing him. Could not have prepared himself to walk the fine line between gratitude and desperate, unwanted hope.

A hope that terrifies him, even as it is the one thing in his life he clings to.

Spike is acutely aware of Buffy's small hand on his bicep, another on his waist, the places where her skin touches his own. Her touch is hot, almost burning, but it's comforting and real, and tendrils of heat radiate beyond the limits of her small handspan, lighting and enlivening where he is darkened and dead. He is leeching the warmth and life from her, and he knows it is wrong. He should leave, save her from his tainted existence, but being away from her again is unthinkable. Not while the cold and despair recede in steady beats, timed to the rhythm of her beating heart. He's a selfish pillock, a right bastard. But maybe, with Buffy beside him, he can stay here, get better, get it right. Prove he has a soul, just as she wanted.

Finally, without another word spoken, Dawn grudgingly stands aside, her resentment palpable in every stiff-limbed movement. He should probably be relieved that she is letting him in, but he can't summon up any kind of pleasure beyond the relief that, with Buffy victorious, the yelling has probably stopped. Hates, now, this kind of conflict, where once he would have loved being the center of such dramatic attention.

He looks briefly at Dawn, trying for a "thank you," but the hurt, hatred and anger in her expression is too raw to bear. He looks away. Coward. But too late, the image is filed away, to be sought again during the long hours of daylight, when self-flagellation is his pastime of choice.

Thankfully, Buffy's arm tightens around him and she murmurs a gentle encouragement as they take a tentative step toward the stairs. Together. And suddenly, it's good. This comforting togetherness. Almost too good. It's closer to her than he's ever been. A bloody miracle, because this time she is holding him. But then he remembers that together means two, and he is less than one.

He wonders whether he'll ever be complete again, and if she'll want him if he is.

She releases him when they reach her room and he hangs limply against the door frame, not sure what to do as he watches her turn down the sheets on her bed. Of course, he knows what it looks like she is doing, but then he thinks he must be delusional again. Probably back in the cave, about to wake up and face the music. Because he can't be back here, in her room, the place that has haunted his dreams for a year, surrounded by her things and witnessing her bedroom ritual. It would be too much to wake up now, with his feelings this high. It would break him. He might just let It win.

But this looks real, smells real, feels real. He knows his Buffy, can sense the life and goodness in her, the strength and beauty. This is she. It has to be.

He notes, then, the tawny color and circular pattern of the sheets. Startling, jarring, to realize that she'd changed the bed coverings during his absence.

But of course she did. Life goes on without him. Always has.

"How long was I gone?" he asks, and she jumps ever so slightly at the sound of his voice in the silence.

"A while. Weeks," she replies without looking at him.

Weeks. The word hits him hard. He'd lost track of time, moments registered only in the catalog of pain and torture. Did she search for him all that time? The gash on her cheek, the shadows under her eyes, were they because of him, too? He knows he shouldn't want that they are, Slayer should have better things to worry about that a kidnapped vamp. But there is that hope again, that painful longing for confirmation that she cares; that she did this for him; that he somehow matters. To her.

He looks again to the bed, wishes he'd taken more notice of how the sheets used to be. Recalls a time when he'd known everything about Buffy's bedroom: the arrangement of her girlish possessions-- and her warrior ones, the color and brand of her sheets, the days she did her washing, the scent of the detergent she used, the noise of her bed as it creaked beneath her slight weight. He dreamed of being allowed to hold her here, surrounded by her things, to pull her slight body against him and revel in the embrace of her private life. Once, he'd known every little detail, and now he can't recall what was on her bed the day he was actually in this room, the day this nightmare began. When did he stop noticing?

His musings are interrupted as she comes back for him, the answer to his confusion in her eyes and on her lips.

"You can stay here, at least for tonight," she announces.

He knows that she expects some reaction, wonders what. Happiness, perhaps, or gratitude. Maybe a lascivious comment, a dash of the old Spike? But he can think of nothing to say, struck as he is by the irony that he is being offered what he always wanted, but for reasons that are the worst imaginable. He wants to collapse on the bed, he wants to leave with dignity, he wants to fall to his knees and lay kisses on her feet.

Unable to reconcile his conflicting emotions, he instead stands and stares and tries, tries so very hard, not to burst into tears.

Only upon reaching her bedroom does it occur to Buffy that tying Spike to a chair is no longer an option. Marvels that she had thought until then that it was. Or not thought, maybe. Leaving the wounded vampire standing against the doorframe, she busies herself preparing the room, all the while wondering what to do with him, and whether she can do what her instincts tell her to.

She hides it well, but guilt has an iron grip on her heart. Spike's painful, awful love for her has broken and destroyed him. He'd found a new definition of pain and suffering since falling in love with her. She replays those words and never doubts their truth. The physical pain of two years of bruises and breakages, torture at the hands of Glory and the First, and from the force of her own fists as he lay prone in that filthy alleyway. Then the emotional agony, her use and abuse of his body, the isolation, the loneliness and the seclusion that resulted from their cruel relationship, and now the maddening curse of the soul, the result of a desperate quest in search of an impossible love.

And now he is back here, at her side, again waiting for her move. He is patient and quiet now, a new look for this once frenzied, emotional creature. But Spike's will has been crushed and he expects nothing, would likely accept whatever she offered. Should she ask, he would mold his broken limbs into position on the chair, surrender his broken and bloodied arms to the grip of coarse ropes. Or lay his beaten and battered body on the floor and cling to consciousness to guard her bed. The intensity of his love and faith terrify her. She thinks she doesn't want that kind of responsibility. Knows she doesn't deserve it. Wonders if she has anything to offer in return.

So she offers her bed.

"You can stay here, at least for tonight," she says.

When he doesn't move, Buffy almost rolls her eyes, momentarily affronted that he seems unaffected by her offer of admittance into the one sanctuary she has left to offer. Thinks he should look happy, gratified, something other than broken. But she refrains from comment, keeps her gaze steady, looks at him and tries to understand. She's been working on that lately, the patience and empathy, the whole respect-for-others thing that single childom and being the Chosen One seemed to undermine. She thinks she may have got the hang of it as she witnesses the interplay of emotions across his face. Grief, love, pain, confusion. And fear, fear such as she's never seen on the face of this once cocky vampire.

She sees the water glisten in the corner of his open eye, and she understands that he is lost and waiting for her lead. A gentle smile, and she moves beneath him, tries to take his slight weight on her shoulders. He is stiff, edgy, and his good hand remains on the doorframe, trembling slightly. His eyes dart between her and the bed.

"Buffy," he whispers in alarm. "Not sure this is such a good idea."

"No arguments, Spike. You can hardly even stand, and I need you well again, which won't ever happen if you don't get some rest. Get in the bed."

"The basement..."

"...is indefensible. I don't want you taken again." She tries to capture his gaze, make him see the resolution in her face. Instead, she witnesses the vivid flickering of fear pass across his features, feels the quiver of his body. He pushes it down fast, but it's too late. He is scared and he has let her know it.

Her voice is steady as she makes her vow. "They're not getting to get you again Spike. Not the First or those creepy harbringers things or anything else. I promise."

She hopes her words are reassuring, that he hears the truth in them and believes her, draws much needed strength. This comfort thing was never her strong suit. Not even with her friends, let alone with a tortured and broken vampire, a creature toward whom an inclination to be harsh still rages inside of her, tempered only by a jumble of other emotions she is not yet ready to examine.

He nods then, believing in her words. Moves toward the bed suddenly, slipping out of her grasp, surprising her. But he gets only a step, and she is there, catching him when he begins to fall. He accepts her presence easily, as always, and she leads him to the bed, helps him to sit down slowly, notes with concern his agonizingly slow actions and his grimaces of pain. Once he is seated, her curiosity gets the better of her and she flicks on the lamp to take a better look.

She cannot help but gasp.

Close up, under the harsh glare of artificial light, Spike's injuries are even worse then they had appeared in that cave. Worse, Buffy concludes, then when that hell-bitch had him. Worse, probably, than the injuries he'd sustained in that awful fall from the tower, although she is relying on the memory of Dawn's version of events there, which is always far from reliable.

The cuts in his chest are deep, and it is likely that only dried blood and swollen tissue obscure her view of white bone beneath. One hand lies limply in his lap, fingers apparently shattered, nails ripped off. He cradles it now in his other hand, which is pale and fine, the bones standing in sharp relief again sunken, sallow skin. She looks away, her eyes tracing his forearm, the curve of his elbow, his biceps. The muscles are smaller now, withered beneath paper-thin skin. His warrior body tortured and faded into that of a prisoner of war.

Buffy swallows, pushes down the rising nausea and a sudden, overwhelming sense of panic and distress. She focuses on the practical, because that's all she can do to keep herself from fleeing, lest she collapse under the weight of her emotions.

"I think...I think we need to clean the wounds," she finally manages to say.

He smirks softly, a flash of his old self that sends a wave of warmth through her despite his teasing tone. "Vampire, luv. Nothin' lives in me. Not even infection."

"Yeah, but...I still need to clean the wounds." She's firmer this time. Authoritative Buffy, that's what is needed. "And I need to strap those ribs. We don't want your bones mending all wrong. I'll go get...stuff. And blood. You need blood."

"Yeah. Blood would be good."

She helps him get comfortable, or as comfortable as can be. Arranges the pillows, lets him lie back against them. He's still in his blood-crusted jeans, and she fidgets a bit, wondering whether she should offer to remove them. Tells herself she could do it, be objective and nurse-like even. Nothing she hasn't seen before. She looks up at him, a silent question, and sees his good eye is lit with a combination of merriment and something sly and sexy. A beat passes between them, both contemplating the possibilities, hesitation and temptation. But he saves her.

"Pass up the sheet, 'luv," he says, beckoning to the edge. She hands it to him and he awkwardly pulls the covering over his lap and part of the way up to his chest.

Jeans left on it is.

The moment should have passed, but the need for contact still tugs at her heartstrings. Without thinking, she gently reaches out, again runs the back of her hand along his sharply defined cheekbone, her fingers gliding down the ragged skin of his cheek. He sits frozen, watching her with his intense blue gaze, adoration blending with confusion and a little wariness. Unspoken emotion stretches between them in the silence of the room.

Suddenly, she withdraws her hand with a quick shake of her head. Stands up, perhaps a little too fast, avoids his eyes. But her voice is soft.

"Be back in a second," she promises.

She leaves him then, goes downstairs in search of pigs' blood and the first aid kit. Dawn is thankfully gone, although the television hums dully from the living room. She glances in, sees a row of curious eyes staring back - all black in the dim light. Potentials, curious to see what Buffy has stored in her bedroom. She wonders briefly what Dawn has told them, decides it doesn't matter. Shakes her head in answer to their silent questions. It's not the time for explanations now. Maybe later, when she has worked out what to say.

Buffy makes her way into the kitchen, takes what she needs without thinking. Such a waste on a vampire, but again it's about the symbolism. She's not looking for the clinical cleansing found in bottles of ointment and bandages. Spike needs something more holistic. They both do.

Maybe, in healing him, she'll heal herself.

Back upstairs, supplies in hand, Buffy is almost disappointed to find her would-be patient already asleep. She places the kit and blood by the bed, then retreats to the doorway, careful not to wake him. Bandages can come later, along with talking.

Watching Spike as he lies in her bed, sheets strewn carelessly over his ragged body, Buffy can no longer contain the feelings of relief, or sudden release. He is home, and safe. They all are, for now. Another chapter of her life is finished, and she can turn the page and begin the next one.

Standing there, unobserved, unguarded, Buffy feels those walls crack a little. Exhausted, she doesn't fight, but allows herself, for one moment, to gaze upon her former lover with fondness, to revel in feelings that are strong and real, if too complex to dissect.

"Sleep, Spike," she whispers into the darkened room, even though she knows he cannot hear her. "Get your strength back. We need you. I need you."

"And I'm okay with that."