Title: Safety Net

Author: Sandy S.

Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: All belongs to Joss.

Summary: Seven years post-"Not Fade Away." S/B. Read to find out. . .

Dedication: For Thia. Happy birthday, dearest! You are so special to meā€¦never forget that! hugs

Safety Net

"Hold him so I can stake him!"

Spike struggles to hang onto the thrashing vampire. "Hurry up, love! Can't keep him immobile forever."

Buffy whirls and kicks a bald-headed vamp that's lunging into her path in the tiny graveyard. "He's smaller than you." The hairless vampire grabs her arm, and she jerks her arm downward, loosening his grip and plunging her stake in the same instant. Dust hangs in the air, momentarily suspended before the wind sweeps it away.

"He's not exactly standing still." Spike pauses as the small vampire slows his motions to grin at Spike. "What are you lookin' at?" he asks.

Spike slams his forehead into the vampire's skull, dazing him momentarily so that his limbs stop flailing madly. Spike searches for the Slayer and spies her flipping through the air with the grace of a trapeze artist. Air catches in his throat despite his need to breathe, and even after thirteen years of knowing her, he is awed by the beauty that comes with such strength. . . such power. . .

. . .coming straight at him.

He blinks and at the last second, he twists, dragging the semi-conscious vampire around with him.

And then, Buffy's legs connect with her target's chest, knocking both vampires to the ground. Spike grunts as his back contacts the grass, and he inhales the sweet scent of grass that has been freshly rained upon. In a second, the wiry young vampire dissipates, and Buffy collapses on top of Spike.

She presents Spike with a beautiful smile. "Hi! You're a nice fall-breaker."

Spike hangs onto her rare expression of joy, and responds, "Hi, yourself. Better watch what you do with that thing. . .could have staked me through that last one he was so small."

"Maybe I meant to," she teases, waving the stake in his face.

"If we haven't killed each other yet, I don't think it'll be happening any time soon," Spike observes, resisting the urge to kiss her nose. He hasn't known Buffy as long as Dru, but he'll never forget her. She's transformed his life like no other person in his lifetime, and he relishes moments like these. . .especially as they were so rare nowadays.

"True." She pats his ribcage with her stake-free hand. "'Sides, I don't think I want to stake ya."

"That's good."

"At least not today."

"Ha, ha. Funny."

He catches her gaze with his own, and time seems to stand still. Her face changes as if she's surprised to glimpse the love that still burns in his eyes. There are so many experiences between them that with one look, she knows what he's thinking. . . what he's feeling.

The only problem is, the ability runs both ways, and Spike views her ever-present hesitance . . . her fear of letting go. For two years, he hasn't challenged that fear. He has patience. If he's waited this long, he can wait longer for her. . .although sometimes he wonders for how long.

And Buffy always pulls away, scrambling to her feet. . . with a line to cover up what she's feeling like, "You're covered in dust."

And Spike always tries to smooth over the awkward exchange with levity, "Now whose fault is that?"

"Mmm. Did you get the dagger?"

Brandishing the jewel-encrusted weapon from his coat pocket, he accepts her proffered hand up, and once on his feet, he dons his cocky grin. "Don't I always get the amulet, sword, whatever it is that Rupert wants us to get?"

Buffy takes the dagger, warm fingers brushing over his cool ones. He tries to hide his shiver of desire.

"Just making sure it didn't go poof with the little guy."

"Didn't. What's Rupert gonna do with this thing anyway?"

Buffy shrugs as she turns to head down the slope of the graveyard and back toward the small apartment where she used to live with Angel. "Dunno. What he always does? Study it to death and try to figure out how it might be used in a plot to end the world? I'm sure it's important somehow. 'Sides he can use it to train other Slayers about the importance of using books for research-y purposes. You know how he is about his campaign to bring back books."

She sighs. Then, "how 'bout a shower before you go home?" she asks as Spike falls in step beside her.

Spike glances over at her small blond head with his usual reaction of contentment and trepidation. "Sure, pet. That'd be nice," he half-lies.

xxxxx

The tiny hallway is dark because the overhead light is broken, but the pictures on the walls are clear in Spike's mind.

On the left hang the photos of Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles along with a stray photo of Anya, Oz, or Tara. And on the right, hang the pictures of Buffy and Angel.

No pictures of Spike adorn the sacred entrance to Buffy's home, and he's so used to the way things are that he doesn't seem to care if they ever will.

The quiet noises of their footsteps permeate the silence of the apartment. Buffy drops her keys on the living room end table and flicks on a lamp as Spike shuts the door softly behind him.

Buffy sneaks a peek at him and smiles briefly. Spike reads the grief. . . the tangible pain written in the emerald depths, and he knows. . . is intimately acquainted with the knowledge that she still misses Angel.

"You want to go first?" she offers, touching his arm gently as he passes her to enter the fairly empty and dusty living room. There's only one chair and a broken television set that Buffy has been reluctant to replace because it was Angel's favorite set. "Seems only right after I got you all dirty."

"You sure?" Spike asks, eyes soft. . . tired.

"Yeah." She waves her hand at him and starts toward the kitchen. "I'm hungry anyway. You know me. . . slay and eat. . . that's all I do!"

"Make sure you save me some blood, okay?" Spike calls as he heads in the opposite direction to the bathroom.

"Blood. . . yummm. . . better hurry with that shower!" There's a note of false cheerfulness in her voice that Spike is used to hearing every time they return to her apartment.

Feeling exhausted, Spike ambles into the plain bathroom, flicking on the dim bulb that lights up the small mirror above the basin. He grabs his usual towel from its place under her neatly folded bathrobe, and spins the knob on the bathtub to release the hot water. Slipping off his dirty clothes, he steps around the end of the faded red shower curtain and into a cloudy world of steam.

As the liquid streams over his skin and soothes his aching muscles, he thinks about Buffy. She hasn't changed the apartment since Angel's departure. . . two years and not a bloody thing has changed. Spike wonders if she is afraid that fixing up her home. . . decorating. . . will erase Angel's presence in her heart and mind.

Again, he thinks that she's afraid to let go.

Spike knows a little something about not being able to let go.

And for the first time, the smallest inkling ventures into his musings. Something has to change in his relationship with Buffy, and he's not quite sure what.

Within ten minutes, he's out of the shower and dry. In the cabinet under the sink, he finds the spare jeans and T-shirt that Buffy insists he keep at her place for nights when they go out slaying. The clothes are faded from repeated washings and fall lightly against his flesh.

As he steps over the threshold into the living room again, his stomach lurches. He asks himself what the sensation means. Running over several explanations in his mind, he identifies the feeling as dread. . . dread for what he knows comes next.

xxxxx

Next to a sink full of dirty dishes, the refrigerator door has yet to be opened. Buffy stands unmoving before the barrier as if the task is insurmountable.

"Pet?" Spike ventures.

Silence.

He doesn't have far to walk to reach her side in the little space, and he cups her elbow with the intent of delicately shaking her out of her trance.

Buffy jumps at his touch and stares at him.

Spike isn't surprised. For him, this has become the nightly routine.

Tears stream down Buffy's face when she turns to him, and he knows her sorrow. For every bit of pain she experiences as a result of losing Angel, Spike perceives the loss of Buffy with equal strength.

With a small exhalation, she's in his arms, her tears dampening the cotton over his skin. Familiar with this routine, Spike's hands go to her back as he gathers her against his chest, and he inhales her sweet scent regardless of how she's still covered in dust from their patrol. As she cries, his eyes focus on the refrigerator door that's covered in magnets.

His eyes zero in on the object of her abject attention. . . the picture of Angel held up by three of the alphabet letter magnets. Angel smiles back at him, as he makes one of his lame attempts at cooking a meal for Buffy.

Angel's long gone, but he's remains in the room with them. . . forever present in each of their interactions. The only time Spike and Buffy are truly free of Angel's presence is when they're on the hunt. . . for whatever demons are out there to kill.

For the first time, anger shoots through Spike, and he abruptly pulls back from Buffy. She stumbles a bit at the shock of his movements, and she blinks her tears away to survey him.

"What's going on?" she asks, wiping the remaining liquid off her cheeks.

Used to giving in to her, he ducks his head and evades the question, "Nothing." With a sudden need to show her his bravado, he swaggers toward the exit, pausing only to feed her with a sarcasm that is reminiscent of his pre-soul days, "Just tired of this." He gestures with his arms wide at the apartment.

"What's wrong? Why are you acting this way?"

Spurred by energy that has been building for a long time, Spike asks, "Do I have to spell it out for you?"

The Buffy he remembers peeks her head out to meet him, and she crosses her arms. "Yes, as a matter of fact, you do."

His voice is heavy with fatigue. "Sorry, pet, too beat."

"Well, you can rest up here. . . sleep on the couch, and we can talk about it in the morning."

He thinks for just a moment, studying her open face as if searching for something. No matter how vulnerable she is around him, she doesn't really allow him into her life.

A weight in his heart, he shakes his head. "I'm out of here."

Running to the door, she calls after him as bursts free from her apartment, "Spike, wait!"

But he's gone.

xxxxx

The first night, Buffy is too furious with Spike to bother following him. She is a bit thrown when he doesn't show up for patrol the next night. The vamps bear the brunt of her frustrated, confused feelings, and she stays awake the entire night, restless and unable to sleep.

After the first few days of no Spike, Buffy throws herself into her work in the daytime, trying desperately to wear herself out so that she can have sleep without nightmares. She trains with Giles, something she hasn't done in years. She coordinates a handful of missions in other countries with several other Slayers, and she organizes all the files at Giles's office.

Giles notices that Spike is absent and that Buffy is working more than she ever has since she lost Angel, but he says nothing. He has learned that he can't interfere in Buffy's personal life, but he does worry because she is like a daughter to him. So, he tries to help in other ways by sending her on brief missions and forcing her to quit their training sessions early so that she doesn't fall asleep at his office.

At Giles's prompting, Dawn invites her for a visit in California where she attends graduate school, but Buffy declines the offer, too afraid that Spike might show up when she is gone.

Time passes, and Buffy moves through the world like a zombie, focusing solely on getting things done.

Finally, one evening as she peruses a particularly old volume on the patterns of demon activity during apocalyptic times, she discovers that the words are blurry on the page. Wetness drips over her fingers, and she realizes that she's crying.

And she has a revelation: she hasn't cried since Spike left.

The tears flow more rapidly, and gathering up her emotions, she shuts the dusty tome and totters shakily into the other room to let Giles know she's going home.

When she arrives at the bleak apartment, she flies through the rooms with wild abandon. She cleans and reorganizes until the place sparkles. She brings at least five huge bags of garbage to the dumpster

At four in the morning, she turns off the kitchen sink and rubs her nose.

She's done.

She inspects her work and smiles. "Home," she whispers.

After that night, she begins her search for Spike in earnest.

She haunts too many graveyard and bars to count. She consults demon contacts. She invades vamp nests, hoping for news of her the vampire with platinum-blond hair and tendency to stake other vampires. She even calls all the Slayers in the current directory because he might gravitate toward helping someone else. . . although she almost can't bear the thought of him working with someone else.

Days turn into weeks, and the ache of missing him grows, and eventually, part of her gives up on ever seeing Spike again. . . gives up on being able to tell him how she really feels about him.

xxxxx

One night after routine patrol, Buffy heads home. . . for the first time in a long time happy. She swings her favorite stake up and down and hums a little song to herself, looking forward to a bit of a snack (maybe leftover pizza) and her bed.

At the entrance of her complex, she stops short.

She closes her eyes and then opens them again as if she can't believe what she's seeing.

Hands in his pockets and dressed in his usual black, he leans against a tree and offers her a small, uncertain smile as if he expects her to attack or stake him.

Dropping the weapon so that it clatters against the cement, she crosses the short distance between them in a heartbeat and throws her small arms around him, squeezing him with all her strength.

He grunts at her impact, and she draws in his familiar scent with a laugh, holding him closer.

"Hold up, pet. Too tight now," he protests quietly.

"Oh my god, is it you, Spike?" she asks, her words muffled by his body.

"Yeah, it's me."

She bounces back and frowns at him before she punches him in the arm. "You jerk." Tears fill her eyes, but they don't overflow. "Where've you been?" She keeps it simple. . .too afraid to tell him how much she missed him because he might not feel the same.

"Around," he says with false nonchalance.

"Around? Whatever. Not anywhere around that I could find you."

"You looked for me?" he asks, incredulity in his tone.

Buffy raises both eyebrows at him. "Of course, you idiot! What else did you expect me to do? I had to find you so I could yell at you!"

He almost grins at her energy. "Yell at me?"

"Duh! What else would I do? I needed to find you to. . ." She's getting dangerously close to the truth. "I needed to find you to tell you thank you."

"Thank you?" He seems genuinely confused.

Instead of giving him an explanation, she grabs for his hand, cherishing the contact. She missed him so much. "Come on."

He balks. "Where are we going?"

Reading the indecision on his face, She makes direct eye contact, green eyes shining. "Inside, silly." Still, he hangs back, and she persists. "Don't look so worried."

And he gives in to her insistence, perhaps because he hasn't seen her in weeks and perhaps because he senses something different about her.

xxxxx

Buffy opens the same blue door to the same small space, but everything's different. She is eager to give Spike a tour, and she leads him from room to room, watching his face transform from concern to shock to almost happiness.

The light in the hall works again, and the walls are freshly painted. The pictures of friends are gone, replaced by abstract art painted by a local artist. The living room is freshly dusted and stocked with new leather furniture, a new television, and a stereo. The kitchen is tidy with no dirty dishes in the sink and a magnet-less refrigerator. The bathroom has a new shower curtain with little frogs on it and smells of vanilla and cinnamon.

"What do you think?" Buffy asks as they sit down on the sofa.

"I don't know what to say, pet."

Eager to be a good hostess, she stands up. "Want something to drink? Blood?"

"You have some?"

"Course! Didn't know when you'd come back . . well, I was hoping you'd come back. . . well, I figured that I might have to drag you back if I found you and that you might be hungry. . ."

Spike reaches out to caress her fingers in interruption. "Sure, love. I'll have some."

"Okay!"

She returns a few minutes later with a mug of blood for Spike and hot chocolate for herself.

She blows on the hot drink. Then, "so, what have you been up to?"

"Not much. . . traveling, getting in a bit of rough and tumble here and there, and. . . I did some thinking. I'm not exactly an expert at the last part. . . although I'm trying to do more of that."

Buffy nods in agreement. "Thinking can be hazardous to your health. I thought a lot, too. Or well, I did a lot. . .maybe didn't think too much."

Spike laughs quietly. "Seems we're a lot alike."

She can't help but accidentally brush his arm tentatively with hers as she set down her cup. "Maybe we are."

Spike takes a sip of blood and peers around the room. "What's with all the changes, pet?"

She shrugs nonchalantly, keeping her arm against his. . . sustaining the contact with him that she's craved for weeks. "Thought it needed changing. Was kinda depressing with all that old, broken, dirty stuff around."

"Change can be hard."

"Yeah but sometimes necessary."

"Definitely." Spike nudges her arm off his and then takes her palm between his thumb and forefinger.

At his touch, Buffy trembles almost consumed by a combination of nostalgia and desire. To calm herself, she asked, "So, did you meet anyone spe. . .that you want to stay in touch with?"

Lacing her fingers with his, Spike squeezes her hand in reassurance, and Buffy notices for the first time how right his touch feels. "No, pet. I spent most of my time alone."

Jealousy races through her. "Most of your time?"

"Yeah, I wasn't really keen on company although a few were pretty persistent."

Her face falls. "Is she. . .are they. . . nice?"

This time, Spike's laughter echoes around the apartment, and he has to drop her hand to place the mug of blood on the coffee table.

"What's so funny?" Buffy pouts. "You meet some other girl. . .girls and you think it's funny? Well, to me, it's not funny at all!" Her voice ends so loudly that Spike stops laughing and just smiles at the Slayer across from him.

The merriment remains alive in his eyes. "Buffy, there's no one else."

"Oh."

Spike changes directions, "You still haven't told me what you want to thank me for."

Buffy notes that he didn't ask her if she'd found anyone else. Now she's not sure how she wants to reveal. "Well, after you disappeared, I-I threw myself into work, and I worked so hard that I didn't feel anything. It was kind of like the first time we got toge. . .you know. I was just trying to ignore my feelings, and I couldn't even cry anymore. But then, one day, I just. . ."

"What, love?" he urges.

"I started crying again." Spike waits for her to continue. "And that's when I came home and cleaned the entire apartment. . . took me hours. I threw away so much stuff." She meets his blue eyes momentarily and then studies his hand again. "And I-I took control of my life again."

"What do you mean?"

She chews her lower lip, takes a deep breath and confesses, "I was living too much in the past. . . . After Angel died, I just sorta lost it. I mean, he was supposed to be my soulmate. . .my partner until I died for the final time, and then, in one instant, he was gone. I couldn't handle it, and I didn't want to let go because it meant that he would really be gone forever."

Spike takes a few moments before he asks, "And what do you think now?"

Buffy inches toward him on the sofa. "I have to live my life. It's so short, and I don't want to waste the rest of mine crying every night. Angel wouldn't want me to. And it's not fair to me. . . or to you."

She waits for him to say something, but he doesn't.

Scrutinizing her fingernails, she admits, "I don't know how you feel now. . . about me. . . about. . .well, I know we have a lot to work out between us. . . but. . .you've always been there for me. I need you. . . I can do it by myself. . .the slaying, life, everything else, but I-I don't want to. I don't want you to go away again. You're important to me. . . y-you're my safety net." She can't help herself; she has to know the truth, and the only way to be sure is to maintain eye contact. Falling into the fathomless depths of his eyes, she says simply, "I love you."

"That's quite a speech, pet."

Spike watches her expression go through several rapid changes from uncertainty to disappointment. She starts to move away from him, tugging her hand away, but he grasps it firmly. In one swift motion, he lifts her onto his lap and tenderly caresses her cheek, wanting very much to kiss her with all the passion and desire he can muster, but he has to say the words first. . . .

"I love you, too."

The end.