Closing her bedroom door quickly, Buffy paused to rest her head against the inside door frame before strewing her leather coat across the armchair and collapsing across her bed, covering her face with her hands as tears spilled from her eyes.
How could Giles do this to her?
Why would he conspire to murder Spike, the one person she trusted completely, the one person she could feel supporting her?
"Damn him," She muttered.
Why didn't he trust her judgment?
What did it take to persuade Giles that she was an adult and fully capable of making tough calls? Making decisions that presented more benefits than downsides for everyone involved. Buffy came to terms with that transition. She had to.
Now, it was time for those around her to adjust all the same. Or else.
What did it take to persuade everyone that Spike had changed? That he found - and willingly pursued - the road to redemption instead of allowing the window of opportunity to find him.
Her heart was still in the process of healing, scarred after all that had transpired in the past year and a half; each event served as a building block in a series of life-altering events and decisions that, collectively, left her reeling, stuck between the occasional clarity and growing confusion.
There were still many questions to answer.
All answers in due time, her mother said often.
Misguided in believing she was held captive in a hell dimension, suffering and engulfed by the embers, Buffy's friends resurrected her. Consequently, forcing her to rediscover her footing, her place, in a world she had bidden goodbye to, a world she no longer recognized.
Removing her from the serenity - the ambiance - of bathing in a golden light, being reunited with her mother after all she'd accomplished. She'd filled many roles: daughter, sister, friend, and guardian.
She surpassed her own expectations, penning a legacy that others could only hope to follow.
The hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it.
Her words echoed clearly behind the silent walls, words meant to inspire and impart courage to Dawn given the years of successes, joys, and disappointments that awaited her.
Next and most significantly was her pillar and source of hope: Spike. Rather than poking and prodding until she spoke, he was complacent to just be near her and do whatever he could to ease the transition process.
He had been her light in the darkest days.
She had begun seeing him in a different light back when Glory posed the most severe threat, she realized. He had become her guardian in more ways than one, showing that he could be trusted, that he would be by her side faithfully in battle and in life.
He'd protect those she loved and held dear not only because the cause was better served when responsibility was shared but also because their safety was important to her. She didn't tell him then, or now, but his company was very much appreciated and key to her survival.
We've been through things, the end of the world and back.
While she had been away, Spike embodied a safety net for Giles, her friends, and, above all, Dawn. Buffy envied how close she and Spike were. Looking after her little sister came to him naturally; she was the apple of his eye, and they were adorable to watch together.
Spike had ensured that all of her wants and needs were met, creating a fun atmosphere for her.
That was supposed to be her job, but Spike assumed the role easily, almost as if it was designed for him. Maybe it was.
He's the only one that doesn't treat me like an alien.
Dawn often looked to him for direction and guidance.
They were at such ease with one another, their relationship having returned to status quo, which was never more apparent than on movie nights, a week-ending ritual that allowed the potentials to both unwind from their multiple hours of training and better connect, the only allowance she offered them.
Dawn would just snuggle up to him, and Spike would finger the locks of her hair as they enjoyed whatever was on, engaged in small talk amongst themselves, and participated in the others' rapport.
Buffy was jealous of them; the reason why suddenly hit her.
She'd had several chances in the past to be that close to him, and shut the door at every turn, afraid of how her friends would respond and the path that such a link romantically would lead to. Spike wasn't going anywhere; he still cared for her, still loved her, and seemingly appeared comfortable with just being her friend, offering a shoulder for her to lean on.
Was it too late for her to walk through that door?
Could she open her heart and love him the way he wanted her to, the way he deserved to be?
Every night while he was away, Buffy would drape his leather duster around her shoulders and curl up beneath it, pretending it was his arms that held her. The dream was always the same. He'd return to her, and she'd tell him just how much he meant to her and how much she cared, how sorry she was for being so callous toward him and driving him to the brink.
Let yourself live already.
She couldn't afford to worry about her friends and how they'd react anymore because, in one night, she'd come close to losing everything. Her prowess for endurance was well-documented, but rounding the corner without Spike was something she simply couldn't bear.
Pulling the back door closed behind him, Spike moved through the kitchen intending to check on Buffy. After leaving her to confront Principal Wood alone, he turned to a few glasses of burgundy on the rocks for comfort, not his usual poison - Jack didn't hold the same appeal.
He needed something stronger to quench his rage.
For every shot he downed, his focus narrowed on Buffy and her current predicament. As if she didn't have enough on her plate: reconciling the change within him, managing the household and the slayers piling in from all corners of the world at a record pace, counseling high school youth, and keeping herself in tip-top physical condition.
She was exhausted mentally, physically, in every possibly way one could only to find herself living in a house of cards. Gambling is an art, one he had down to a science. That he had been the target of such a gamble, one that ultimately proved more counterproductive than beneficial to the coming war and all participants, was enough to stun him.
The innocent man he once was emerged from the shadows, if only momentarily.
He was grateful to evade the potentials for the evening, such relief short-lived as Giles emerged from the living room area. Leaning against the kitchen island, he considered retrieving a cigarette from the inside pocket of his duster but thought the better of it after examining the former watcher's posture.
"Feeling guilty, are you?"
After his evening, why not have some fun of his own, maybe get a little payback?
"How did you know?"
Spike could only scoff at the question.
Wood struck him as the type searching for validation from others before taking action of any kind and who better to bestow it than Giles; he never put it past the elder man to approve even the most drastic or desperate tactics if success - some personal gain - was the end result.
"This little stunt stinks of you, Rupert. All of it. No one else in this house profits from my being dusted more than you. You think I'm not good enough, that I'm unworthy, of Buffy."
"I do what's best for her, and if you don't - "
Before he could blink, in a blur, Spike lunged forward, capturing him by the throat and hoisting him roughly off the floor. The vampire's eyes turned amber before returning to ocean blue.
"You do what's best for her? That's what you have to say for yourself? Let's get something straight. I'm the only person in the lot of you that can give Buffy what she needs - honesty, support, and trust." Spike paused, taking a calming breath.
"I could kill you, but I won't. I could've killed that chap Wood earlier tonight, but I didn't. Care to know why I don't? Buffy. She'd stake me good and proper if I harmed any of you, even now. She'd never endanger Little Bit, Willow, that wanker Xander, the girls, or you because she looks after the people she loves and cares about. That she would doesn't surprise me. What surprises me most of all, however, is that you've forgotten that."
A look passed between them. Of what nature he couldn't ascertain. Still, he set the elder man down on the floor, retracting the hand from his throat.
Stumbling backward on his heels, Giles took in several large breaths of air, oxygen returning to his body, and returned Spike's gaze with hesitation. He admitted, "I don't want to lose her."
"You can start by trusting her, believing in her the way she believes in me."
Deciding to leave the former watcher to digest that, Spike turned and climbed the staircase.
There was a soft knock at her bedroom door, the voice unmistakable. Frantically, she wiped at the tears on her face before acknowledging him.
"Come in, Spike."
Pushing the door open and walking through, Spike bit back the anger that swelled within him at the sight of Buffy in a broken state. The tears she'd apparently wiped away glistened under the light, giving her skin an unhealthy sheen.
Not bothering to remove his leather duster, he rushed to her and sat on the edge of her bed, extending his arm outwards until his hand met her shoulder, his knee brushing her thigh as he breathed the strong stench of salt.
He'd wanted so badly to cup her face in his hands and dry the well.
"Love - "
Buffy threw her arms around his neck, melting into his arms. The aged leather despite blood stains and the familiar combination of alcohol and cigarettes, a scent unique to Spike, to her smelt of safety, comfort, and warmth.
It was the best place to be.
Soon, his collarbone was damp from her tears; her body convulsed violently from the onslaught. He flattened one hand on the small of her back while drawing the other upward to comb through her hair, holding her close to him.
"I almost lost you tonight. They tried to take you away from me." She managed to say between sobs, her voice sharp with pain and anguish.
Spike pressed a kiss into her hair and whispered in her ear, "It takes more than a former librarian and a revenge-driven principal to get rid of me. I'm not going anywhere."
Lifting her face from his shoulder, Buffy stared into his knowing gaze and let her right hand slip freely into his left, now focused on the burn gracing his cheek.
"We should put some ointment on that."
Spike couldn't help but chuckle slightly, offering her a crooked smile. "It's fine."
Tentatively, she ran her thumb across it before pausing to feather the thin laceration below his right eye. Studying his eyes, Buffy could feel herself drift at the layers of softness in them. It had been quite some time since he looked at her that way.
"Let me do this for you." Her voice was just above a whisper.
Without relinquishing his hand, she stood and urged Spike to do the same.
Focusing on the muscles in his upper arm as they flexed, it wasn't until he turned to strew the leather garment across the armchair next to hers that she noticed yet another laceration across his bicep.
As he re-settled on the edge of her bed, Buffy continued. "Make yourself comfortable while I get supplies from the outer bathroom."
Arching his eyebrow in surprise, Spike ran his hand through his hair, watching Buffy leave, and swung his legs up from the side of the bed before leaning back against the plush pillows.
He could feel the sunrise approaching fast; his eyes were drawn to the curtains to his right.
They were made of thicker material than he'd remembered. That she could've anticipated his spending nights in her bedroom lifted his spirits. The possibility of earning her forgiveness once flickered like a candle in the wind; the flame burned brightly, strongly now.
Releasing a content sigh, he sank further into the cushions and closed his eyes.
Before opening the cabinet above the new vanity Xander installed, Buffy stared at her reflection in the mirror, suddenly concerned with her appearance, the feeling of betrayal tapering off and replaced by exhilaration.
Her eyes were bright, her cheeks burning, as she loosened her ponytail.
Satisfied, she retrieved the antiseptic, burn ointment, Neosporin, cloths, and crisscross bandages from the upper cabinet and quickly returned to her bedroom, receiving suspicious looks from Kennedy, Rona, and Vi as she passed.
Locking her bedroom door, Buffy organized the items on her nightstand before sitting on the edge of her bed carefully, studying Spike who had dozed off. She noticed the dark circles below his eyes; like herself, he hadn't been sleeping much either.
When did he have the time to rest?
At night, he trained the potentials alongside her in hand-to-hand, weaponry, defensive drills, and grappling on top of patrolling different sectors of town. While she worked at the school, he would supervise from a somewhat limited capacity since he couldn't venture outdoors, provided feedback, and even prepared meals for the girls.
The veins were more prominent on his skin. She knew pig's blood wasn't enough nourishment; it was just enough to keep him strong but, in terms of satisfaction, the surface was scratched, never penetrated. It was a necessary practice - they'd needed to wean him off of human blood.
His delayed recovery from the First's recent capture of him was also worth considering.
Buffy lightly shook his shoulder and watched his eyes flutter open.
Spike took a few seconds to focus, his gaze going from her to the nightstand and back to her again as he sat up slowly, rubbing his eyes with his fists, and mumbling an apology.
She shook her head, amused. "Totally unnecessary."
Beginning with the laceration on his arm, Buffy cleaned the wound with antiseptic, applied a coat of Neosporin, and dressed it with a bandage; she repeated the process in treating the laceration under his right eye and applied a coat of burn ointment to his left cheek.
Discarding the package of bandages, she focused on Spike whose eyes were fixed on her, anticipation written in them.
He spoke before she could. "You really should be angry with me, hate me even."
"I could never hate you. You know that."
Smiling at her words, Spike gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
Buffy paused, looking down at their joined hands, reveling in the simple touch.
"You were always there for me, no matter how dark, bleak, or even desperate I became to hold on. You were the only one who understood what I was going through, where I'd been. You were the one person I could go to and confide in without being judged or having what I said examined. You listened. I know that I was cold and distant. How I treated you was wrong, and I'm sorry."
"We all make mistakes…" He trailed off, pondering his own.
Sensing the change in him, Buffy threaded her fingers in the soft curls at the base of his neck and kissed him softly before pulling back to rest her forehead against his, breathing heavily as he searched her eyes. Beneath them was urgency, a need for him to stay with her, to be close.
Without relinquishing his hold on her, Spike fell backwards onto the bed and reclaimed her all too inviting mouth once more. He slipped his hand beneath her sweater before rolling them both over so he was on top.
Arching her back to get closer to him, Buffy ran one hand up and down his back while slipping the other beneath his t-shirt to feel the contours of his stomach muscles. Parting her lips, she moaned as he inserted his tongue and probed her mouth.
It had been so long since she felt his touch. It was familiar and yet new at the same time.
Breaking the kiss, Spike peered into her eyes and saw equal passion and anxiety in them.
She wanted him just as much as he wanted her.
Instead of turning to him for an escape from reality, an excuse to feel, it was solace she sought from him. She wanted to create a haven rather than destroy one, to take comfort in his embrace rather than cower from it, to make love with him rather than simply caress, fondle, and stroke.
A gentle stream of sunlight blanketed the room, alerting her that it was early afternoon as she slowly woke. Buffy marveled at the feel of Spike's arm around her waist, his hand on her stomach, the warmth of his body against hers.
She lightly stretched before shifting in his embrace, lying on her side facing him.
His hair was tousled, lips slightly parted. Buffy didn't want to wake him just yet; she wanted to cherish the moment all the same. There would be few mornings like these, where no care in the world could pull her from his arms, and she wanted to savor every one - beginning with this one.
Resting her head on the pillow next to his, she lightly traced his sharp cheekbones with her fingertips, just looking at him, thinking this was the way every day should end and begin.
Life as she knew it was forever changed.
The look of relaxation on his face made her consider peace, its true definition. The peace he gave her, and brought to her life through his love, paled in comparison to the peace she'd given him which made her both envious and eternally grateful.
Upon hearing a soft groan emanating from him, Buffy quickly withdrew her hand and smiled tenderly as Spike smacked his lips and inched closer to her, stroking her bare hip before going still again. Even in sleep, he sought her. Planting her hand on his chest, she gently kissed each closed eyelid and warmed at his immediate response to her ministrations.
Consciousness slowly returning, Spike removed his hand from her hip, planting it on the small of her back, pulling her to him before claiming her mouth in a chaste kiss. He kept his eyes closed, concentrating only on her body which molded perfectly to his and the steady drum of her heart.
"Hmm…nice wake-up call, love." Spike's voice was still heavy, thick, from sleep.
Brushing his eyelid with another soft kiss, she pulled back to meet his now open blue eyes - windows to the man within him, a man that only she knew and could call her own.
Unable to speak, focusing on the waves of hair that fell around her face, he used his eyes to convey just how beautiful she was to him always. Returning attention to her hazel depths, he saw something flicker beneath them.
"Something on your mind?"
"I was only thinking how perfect this, being here with you. Everything just feels so different."
He understood her meaning perfectly, appreciating the significance of last night. Caressing her cheek, he kissed her passionately.
Strewing her right leg over his hip, his knee coming between her thighs, Buffy threaded her fingers through his hair and smiled as Spike craned his neck to pepper hers with kisses before resting his head on her chest, just above her heart.
"And it would be wicked conspicuous if we didn't make an appearance."
Neither could refrain from laughing. There had been more than enough gossip, small talk even, about 'the slayer and her vampire'.
"Screw them. You don't care about what they think anymore than I do. Besides, this is your house. You do whatever you like."
"Very true. In the meantime, perhaps you and I could shower together."
Arching his eyebrow, Spike raised his head reluctantly from her chest, looking her in the eye.
"That requires getting up, doesn't it? Not that the idea is unpleasant."
Chuckling, she nodded; the child-like innocence in his face made her smile. "Yes, but I didn't say we had to entertain anyone. I was thinking that we could just spend the day together. I'll even make you some hot chocolate quipped with those marshmallows that you like."
A brilliant smile from him was her reward.
"Sounds like a plan."