Over two weeks in, and it still felt surreal to him. Like a dream. One of those desperate, clichéd fantasies of domesticity he used to conjure up when he was human, and lonely. He knew that it wasn't one, of course. Enough time had passed that he could trust it was real. Yet, it didn't quite seem like reality. Because things were too pleasant, altogether too comfortable in his life, and he knew that he didn't really deserve it. Every morning waking up in her bed, her body curled around him. Tangled limbs and soft hair, one hand lying splayed across the silken expanse of her back. Listening to the sound of her breathing, the throb of her heartbeat. Of course he didn't deserve it.
But he had it. That was the amazing thing. Every single morning, he had it.
He still couldn't wrap his mind around that fact. That he'd made all the wrong choices, fucked up everything so completely. That despite it all, somehow, he'd ended up with this. It didn't seem right.
His eyes followed her as she went about her usual morning routine, moving from the bureau to the closet, carefully choosing what she would wear that day. She slipped out of the bedroom with her clothes in her arms and a few moments later, he could hear the sound of her singing as she showered. Same tune every morning; he knew all the words. When she reappeared, her long hair was damp and smelled like coconut. She rifled noisily through the clutter of cosmetics on her vanity table, painting herself with the mysterious contents of at least half a dozen different containers. It never failed to baffle him, her doing that. He knew that when she finally considered herself presentable she would look exactly as she always did, only more so, which left him to wonder why she bothered with it in the first place. She looked perfect—she was perfect—and he could not fathom what feature she thought she might be able to improve upon by using that junk.
She perched on the edge of the bed while she tugged on her boots, and it was not until then that she finally noticed him staring at her.
"I didn't mean to wake you," she said softly. "Did I wake you?"
He shook his head, but she apologized anyway, reaching out with the hand not holding her boot. Her skin smelled like violets; her ring had twisted around so that the setting faced inward. He nuzzled at her open palm as it passed over his cheek, brushing his mouth across the jewels. His girl; his ring. He could not imagine what he might have done to deserve this.
"God, Spike," she sighed then. He opened his eyes to find her staring at him, her fingers dropping from his face to touch the bruise on the side of his neck.
"Doesn't hurt," he told her. Which was true. As a matter of fact, it actually felt pretty good.
"Yeah, but still…" She traced the perimeter of the blemish with her fingertips and then leaned down to kiss it. She didn't understand; she thought she'd been too rough the night before. But the truth was that he liked it that way. He liked her leaving marks. Buffy had a bracelet and a ring; he had a bruise on his neck and a dozen small, half-healed scratches on his back. When you came right down to it, they really weren't all that different. Just symbols of possession. He could've had a ring if he had wanted one, but he liked it better this way. Etched into the flesh.
"It's a vampire thing, love," he told her, a little amused by her obvious show of concern. But Buffy frowned.
"You shouldn't want me to hurt you," she insisted. She didn't realize that she wasn't hurting him. That this was the whole point. He could be trussed up and she could use her teeth and her nails and whatever other weapons might reside in that delightful arsenal of hers. And he knew that she would never hurt him. It felt incredible to know that, to lie there with his hands above his head and let her demonstrate it.
Anyway, even if she wanted to hurt him, that wouldn't have been the way to go about it. It would have been much easier for her to bloody him with a sour look or an angry word than with her fists.
He tilted his head at her and tried to find the words to explain, but before he could speak, her arms had gone around his shoulders and her mouth was against his ear.
"Come with me today."
He flinched a little at that, although both her tone and her touch were gentle. And he wanted to go with her. He really did. He wanted to be with her when she brought Bit home from the hospital. He would have gone, too, if it hadn't been for her friends and the goddamned party they insisted on throwing afterward. Despite the uneasy truce he'd struck with them, Spike had a feeling that peace wouldn't hold if they were all trapped together in a small room with access to alcohol. In spite all of Buffy's assurances to the contrary he was absolutely certain that Giles did not want him in his apartment. But it wasn't only that. Spike had his pride, as well. He didn't much fancy hiding underneath a blanket so that he wouldn't burst into flames as Xander drove them to the hospital.
"Dawn will be really disappointed if you don't show," Buffy added. Her trump card.
"She knows already. I told her I wasn't going to do it."
Buffy looked skeptical, but he wasn't lying. He had told the Bit that, the night before. Visiting hours at the hospital ended before sunset, which made it difficult for him to see her when the rest of them did. But he'd gone a couple of times, after hours. One of the night nurses was young and lonely; she'd let him on the ward just so long as he flirted with her for a while first. He told this to Buffy, who seemed suitably annoyed by the idea of him flirting with anyone, for any reason.
Still, she knew a lost cause when she saw one and, in the end, she went without him.
Spike lazed around in bed for a while after she left, but sleep had suddenly become an impossibility. He had a sinking feeling that he had made a mistake in not going. That both his girls were going to be angry with him. And it wasn't his fault, goddamn it. He was just trying to prevent more unpleasantness. They should be grateful.
He pulled on his clothes and then drifted downstairs in search of breakfast. Or lunch, rather. It was well past noon. There were nine packets of blood in the fridge. Spike examined each of them, carefully choosing the one closest to its expiration date and dumping it into a mug. There was no real reason for him to be so frugal. The Council was paying Buffy a wage now. Not a great wage, certainly. Not what her life was worth. But it was enough to satisfy the mortgage and to keep the sisters in food and clothing and small comforts. He knew that Buffy would have stocked the fridge with blood if he had let her, but he had no intention of letting her. He gambled for his cash, gave Buffy whatever was leftover after buying blood and cigarettes. It was never much. Never enough to help in a substantial way. And that bothered him.
Don't want to be always living off you, pet.
It made her angry whenever he said that. She would invariably call him an idiot and insist that he was doing more than his part. And he did do a lot. He did everything he could. Two or three nights a week, he would patrol the cemeteries alone, allowing Buffy to have time off to be with Dawn, at the hospital, or with her friends, at the Bronze. The nights she did patrol, he always went with her. Yet, it hardly seemed like work; he enjoyed it too much. He felt as if he should be doing more. He felt as if he should be doing it all.
The microwave beeped shrilly, and Spike pulled out his blood with a sigh. By now, Buffy and Xander would have collected Bit from the hospital. They would be on their way over to Giles' house to celebrate her recovery.
It's better that I'm not there, he thought morosely. They'll have a better time, not having to worry about the Big Bad screwing everything up.
The coffee mug he poured his blood into was small, but when he drained it, Spike didn't want any more. He felt jealous and hurt, although staying home had been all his idea. Yet, despite all his insistence to the contrary, he wanted to be part of that aspect of their lives. He wanted to be welcome. He wanted—
But before he could fully decide what else he wanted, there was a sudden, sharp bang at the front of the house, startling him so much that he dropped the empty mug. He charged through the kitchen door, fully prepared to do battle with whatever nasty thing had burst into his house in search of the Slayer.
A good plan but for the fact that the moment he stepped into the dining room, he ran smack into the Slayer.
"Whoa," she exclaimed, gripping his shoulders. The force of the collision had almost knocked her down. "Where are you going in such a hurry?"
Spike gaped at her stupidly for half a second, and then he found his tongue.
"What in the bleeding hell are you doing back so early? Is Dawn all right?"
"Dawn's fine. I left her on the side of the road to find her own way home. I figured the fresh air would do her good."
"She's in the living room, Spike. She's fine."
It was only then that he noticed the bags at their feet, the warm, greasy smell of Mexican takeout.
"What about the thing—the party—at Giles' house—"
"You'll have to ask her," she answered. Then, she indicated the bags. "I've got to dish up this stuff before it gets cold."
Bewildered, Spike watched her disappear through the kitchen door. For a moment, he considered following her and demanding to know what had happened, but something told him that she would be no more helpful than before. Instead, he continued on his original route to the foyer.
Dawn was standing just inside the entrance to the living room, an assortment of DVDs fanned in her hand like playing cards.
"We rented Back to the Future," she said, as if they had been in the middle of a conversation. "It seemed kind of appropriate."
His eyes darted over her, taking stock of her appearance: a little pale, a little thin, but smiling. In fact, he thought it almost looked as if she was laughing at him.
"What about your party, Niblet?"
"The food was lame," she told him. Her voice was airy but she was looking at him now, and there was something in her eyes. It wasn't sad or reproachful—it wasn't even serious—but it made him ache. It made him feel—
"Welcome home, Spike."
—ten fucking feet tall.
He swallowed, forced out a hoarse chuckle.
"Same to you, Bit." He wanted to hug her, but somehow it seemed too awkward. He was afraid she would think he was a ponce, or weak. Instead, he reached out and ruffled her hair. "Welcome home."
"Why'd you come back for me that night?" Spike asked, hours later.
There was a saccharine 1980's film on the television, a chaos of dirty plates and takeout debris scattered across the coffee table. Dawn lay curled up on the other end of the sofa, her long hair falling across her face. She had drifted off midway through the third Back to the Future movie, and neither of them had the heart to wake her. Spike knew how she felt. He had been half asleep himself, lulled by hours of mindless entertainment and too much food. By the warm weight of Buffy's body curled up against him. He'd been reliving that moment as he dozed. The night she had come back for him.
Buffy raised her head from his shoulder. Despite the drowsy tone of his voice, his eyes were wide open and alert, clearly intent upon getting his answer. He had always been afraid to ask the question, before.
"Why do you think I came back?" she countered gently. Her fingers threaded through his messy hair, stroking in a way that did not help to keep his thoughts on track.
"Well, I don't know, do I? Last I knew, you were telling me that you'd never be mine. And then—"
"And then you just showed up out of nowhere and wanted me to ask you—" He paused. Then, very softly: "Why'd you do that, Buffy?"
She didn't hesitate, not for an instant.
"I did it because I love you."
That should have been enough for him. After all, it was everything. Yet, somehow, he still felt dissatisfied. Uncertain. Yes, she loved him. But for how long? How could he possibly keep her love when he had no idea how he had won it in the first place?
"Oh, Spike." Buffy looked as if she could read every thought in his head. "I know I was wrong to tell you all those things before. It's just that I felt so—"
It wasn't the word he had been expecting. He tensed a little in her embrace, and turned his head to the side.
"For loving me, you mean?"
Buffy shook her head. "For hurting you," she whispered. "For lying to you, back in London. For making you—"
"—into this," he finished bitterly. "Would you rather be back in London? If Willow offered to send you—"
"Do you really think I would do that to you?"
He didn't know what to believe. And he felt confused. The person back in London was just a younger, infinitely more naïve version of the person who sat here with her now, and it seemed idiotic to feel jealous of himself. Yet there it was, envy so strong that it almost choked him. Because if she still wanted that life—a life he couldn't possibly offer her now—
"Why would I do that?" she asked softly, interrupting his thoughts. "Why do you think I would want to go back there when you've worked so hard to get here?"
A sudden hitch in his breath, at that. At the small hands that were working their way beneath his shirt to stroke his stomach.
"Back then I could take care of you—I would've taken care of you—and now I want to and—"
And I'm not able.
He couldn't finish the thought; it was too humiliating. But he could see in her eyes that she knew what he had been about to say.
"You do take care of me," she argued. "You do all kinds of things to—but the point is that you shouldn't feel like you have to. That was where I screwed everything up…making you think it was your job. I can support myself."
Spike was silent, thinking about that. What she was saying made sense. It made him feel good. Yet, at the same time, it went against all his instincts.
Buffy was watching him with a small frown.
"Hey," she said, pulling one hand from beneath his shirt so that she could touch his cheek. When he looked at her, she asked, very seriously, "Do you want to go back? Is that what this is about? Do you wish that we could have stayed there together? Are you unhappy—?"
His eyes moved from her face to Dawn's and then back again. She was sitting on his lap with his arms around her waist…with her hands on him…and she wanted to know if he was unhappy? The absurdity of it was almost enough to make him laugh.
"Why would I want to go back to that time, love? All the things I wanted back then…all the things I dreamed about…I've got them here. I've got everything I ever—" He choked, feeling oddly bashful. Unable to go on.
Buffy smiled at him then, and lowered her head so that she could kiss his neck.
"So you've got everything you want. Now learn how to enjoy it."
Spike was glad that her head was underneath his chin and she couldn't see the silly grin that had suddenly spread across his face.
"I can do that," he said.