OUT OF THE WOODS

"You cannot teach what you don't know.
You cannot give what you don't have.
You cannot forgive what you can't forget.
But you can love even if you're not being loved back."

Unknown

The helicopter has sailed, Riley has flown, thought Buffy, glancing up at a cold moon and shivering slightly as she scuffed her way toward home. Mix metaphors much? Whatever, it doesn't matter. The adrenalin rush she'd gotten fighting the vamps in the alley was long gone, just like Riley. I've been left before, it's no big deal.

She still had to patrol--duty demanded it, no matter how much she might want to head for home and fall into bed and tears. The shortest route to patrolling was over the back wall into Restfield cemetery. Climbing up and over the high stone edifice, Buffy told herself that being in this particular cemetery had nothing to do with her not having seen the platinum annoyance since he'd played damnable messenger the night before. No, she was in Spike's territory merely to hunt vamps, regardless any demons coming her way this night would be surprised at the Slayer's lackluster performance while finishing them off.

Spike's crypt came into view, and Buffy knew he was probably holed up inside. She quickened her pace in an effort to pass by as quickly as possible, only to skitter to a halt when she noticed the door standing ajar. Darkness filled the space beyond, where Buffy knew there should be candlelight. Maybe Spike had his own problems with the guy owning that suck-fest nest before he came after me? she thought. Climbing the steps, she pushed the door farther open. Wary, she peered inside.

A solitary candle guttered in a wall sconce, barely illuminating the vampire slouching in a stone recess nearby. Glancing up from the worn paperback book cradled in his hands, Spike met Buffy's gaze. "Slayer?"

"I saw your door was open. That's not normal, so I thought I'd Thought I'd what? Check on him? Make sure he was ok? She made a random gesture. "You know."

"You have to latch it tight," Spike offered, "else it creeps open."

"Good to know. I'll be sure to do that on my way out. Like, now." She thumped the door in question and turned to go.

"Slayer." His voice--quiet and soothing in its own, unwelcome way--made her pause. "I know you're in pain. I..." A sigh, unnecessary punctuation in someone undead. "I didn't tell you so that--"

"You didn't tell me at all, Spike. You showed me. Should I thank you for that?"

"I didn't do it to hurt you."

"Then why did you do it?"

"He was betraying you. You needed to know that."

"Why?" Help me understand why I couldn't go on in blissful ignorance.

"Because any man who would go to someone else when he clamed to love you... You don't deserve to be hurt like that. If there had been any other way, I'd have taken it."

A breeze gusted around the crypt door. Teasing Buffy's hair, it rustled the debris at her feet. She watched the leaves chase one another. "You couldn't have just left me a note?"

"We both know you wouldn't have believed if you hadn't seen it for yourself."

"You're right." Meeting his gaze, Buffy was startled to see worry where she had expected smug satisfaction. Stepping further into the crypt as another gust of wind invaded, Buffy pushed the heavy door closed. Sinking down, she sat on the top step. "Maybe... maybe the experts are right. Maybe we have to hurt before we start to heal."

Spike's silence was loud in the room. Looking across at the vampire who always had a sarcastic remark ready for every occasion, Buffy saw that he was doing nothing but sitting quietly and watching her.

"What are you reading?" she asked, more to fill the silence than anything else.

"Cyrano de Bergerac," he replied.

"In the original French?"

He nodded.

"Where did you get a copy of--"

"I didn't steal it, Slayer. Found it, free for the taking, in a box outside the Book Nook."

"You read French?"

"Hell no, I just look at the pictures." He rifled the pages.

"Angel used to pretend to read French."

"Did he now?" Glancing down at the well-worn paperback, Spike cracked the spine. "Ah! non, cela, jamais! Non, ce serait trop laid," he read.

"Si le long de ce nez une larme coulait!
Je ne laisserai pas, tant que j'en serai maître,
La divine beauté des larmes se commettre
Avec tant de laideur grossière!"

"You're not pretending," she commented.

"I don't need to pretend a damn thing, Slayer." Shoving aside the book, the vampire sat up straighter. His pupils were large and black in the half-light, his breathing had quickened.

Buffy refused to rise to the bait, even if she had been the one to dangle it in the first place. "French is hard for me."

"Is it? That might change if you made time to study the way you make time to patrol."

"Not gonna happen, you know that." Looking down, she scuffed a toe in the leaves gathered at the bottom of the steps. "Even if I wanted it to, it's not going to happen."

She heard him stop breathing. Another long moment of silence passed. Would he read some more if I asked? she wondered.

"Why am I sitting here?" The question was more for herself than for her quiet companion. "Why don't I go slay something? Or why don't I just go home?" Getting to her feet, Buffy brushed the dust from the back of her jeans. "You're right, Spike. I needed to know what Riley was doing. Thank you for telling me. Showing me. Whatever."

She reached for the crypt door.

"So, you two working things out?"

She splayed her fingers against the cold metal and didn't bother turning around. It's easier to talk to him if I don't have to face him. "Riley's gone, he left earlier tonight. The military invited him to join some other covert operation in South America. No contact with civilians."

Boots scraped on stone. "He left you?"

"He said he was leaving unless I gave him a reason to stay." Tears welled in her eyes. She dashed them away. I am not crying in front of Spike.

"He put it all on you?" Spike growled. She felt him step closer, reach out to her.

Turning, Buffy leaned against the door and looked down at the vampire where he stood at the base of the steps. His face was in shadow, his eyes glittered at her.

"I didn't give him a reason to stay," Buffy explained. "I was angry when he came to see me. I didn't want to talk about... you know... because nothing he could have said at that point would have made me feel any better. As it turns out, Riley wasn't interested in making me feel better." Despite her best intentions, her eyes filled with tears again. "He didn't even say he was sorry."

"What did he say, then?" The vampire's tone was low and dangerous.

"That in the beginning it was apparently a stupid, immature game."

"A...game. Leaving you in the middle of the night and going off to be bitten in a suck-house was a game to him? What sort of game?"

"What sort of--" Her laugh was bitter. "How many are there, Spike? I didn't think to ask, I didn't want to know. He said that he wanted to even the score, whatever that means. He wanted to know why Angel and Dracula had such power over me."

Spike tilted his head. "You'd never give your power over to any vampire. We'd have to wrestle it away from you, only to be staked in the process."

"Yeah? Well, you get it. Riley didn't. I made Angel bite me in order to save him when he was dying. As for Dracula..." She looked away for a moment. "Okay, maybe I was under his power for about thirty seconds. I took it back, though."

Spike's teeth gleamed in the darkness. "I can imagine how you took it back, pet. The old wanker left town in a hurry."

"I don't know what he did. He wouldn't dust, he just kept swirling around, trying to reform in front of me. I staked him like three times, but he wouldn't dust."

"You'll get him next time."

"You bet I will." Shivering, Buffy wrapped her arms around herself. "Riley...thought he was in control, thought he had all the power when he let the first one bite him. And the next one, and the next. He said it wasn't my fault that he went to them, that he let them do it, but how can I believe that? I don't know what to believe."

Stomping down the steps, Buffy brushed past Spike to wander farther into the crypt. Crossing to the sarcophagus, she trailed a finger over the cold stone. Staying where he was, Spike waited for the Slayer to continue, only to sense after a few moments that she might not.

She's lost, he thought. Can't share this with her mum or her sister, or any of her friends. No one else would get it. Daring to move closer, he came up behind her. She's never talked to me like this before, like I'm another person. I could get used to this. For once in his life, he waited.

"Riley was paying that vampire to bite him, wasn't he?" Buffy asked.

"Yes, love."

"He got off on the rush and the danger." Whirling, she stood nearly on Spike's booted toes and stared up at him. "Did he get addicted to the darkness he thinks is in me?"

"There is no darkness in you, Buffy." He knew that, lost as she was in her pain, she wasn't really hearing him.

"He said those creatures made him feel something he didn't know he was missing," she rushed on. "Something I couldn't give him. Spike, what couldn't I give him?"

Cupping his hands around her shoulders, Spike dared caress her collarbones with his thumbs. "The danger is half of the fun, Slayer. The other half is the blood rush."

"The what?"

"The blood rush," he repeated. "Do you understand what that is? Did you feel it with Dracula?" She couldn't have felt it with Angel. Not with him gnawing like an animal at her neck.

"I don't know," Buffy whispered, hazel eyes wide with dread. Reaching up, she lifted Spike's hands away from her and moved away. "I can't think when you do that. When Dracula bit me..." Her fingers went to her neck where the faintest of scars could be seen. "I didn't really feel anything. I went back to sleep and woke up in the morning. The next time he bit me--"

Spike hissed, whether in alarm or jealousy, not even he was certain. "The next time?"

"He had me feed from his wrist. And he talked too much. Broke his own thrall." She shivered. "Riley..."

"You didn't feel the rush with Dracula?"

"A world of no, Spike." Glowering at him, she hopped up onto the lid of the sarcophagus. "We're talking about Riley, not about Dracula, okay? Riley said that those who fed from him needed him. Not just for blood or money, but what else is there? Riley thought the vampires needed him on some basic level, he said it was beyond passion when they bit him, whatever that means. That they wanted to devour him, all of him, and I--" She gulped. "I never made him feel like that. What was he feeling? I need to understand."

Stepping closer to the stone, Spike placed his hands on either side of Buffy, effectively hemming her in. "They did not need your soldier boy, Slayer; he needed them. He was seduced by the feeling of euphoria that comes on when a vampire feeds slowly and deliberately."

"But how was he seduced?" She sounded so frustrated that Spike had to take a deep breath to prevent himself from absorbing the same frustration. "What did it feel like, that Riley of all people--someone who hated and hunted demons for months--would fall for it?"

"I'm telling you, Slayer--unless you'd rather I showed you?"

She narrowed her eyes. "You'd love that, wouldn't you?"

"Be a lot easier." He leaned even closer and waited, expecting her to kick him across the room. "Are you gonna shut up and let me finish?"

"Yes," she growled.

"Fine. Here's how it goes. Multiply your most intense orgasm times twenty. Then imagine it being drawn out over ten or fifteen minutes."

"Oh. Okay, that's enough." She pushed at his arms, but Spike wasn't inclined to let go. For reasons unknown to the vampire, Buffy didn't push it.

Spike's thighs pushed against her legs, he felt her tremble. "I'm not finished yet."

She dug her fingers into his arms. "So finish, already."

"Some victims get addicted to the rush. They want it again and again, until they drown in it. Your soldier boy--"

"Stop calling him that. He was never mine."

"Fine. Soldier boy was deluded if he thought those vamps hungered for him specifically. Any warm body would do, and you know it, Slayer. There was nothing special about him. They wanted his blood and his money, and they were willing to take their time extracting it, to keep him coming back. In the end, that trull you saw him with would have drained him dry without a backward lick and gone on to her next victim. End of story."

"But--But when they bit him, he felt like he was their whole world," Buffy protested. "All there was, was him. I never made him feel like that."

There was such pain in her gaze, such bewilderment that Spike felt it as if it were his own. Ever so slowly, he slid his hands up over Buffy's thighs and left them there, just holding onto her.

"Was Riley ever all there was for you, pet?"

She stared at the vampire in open disbelief. "I gave him everything, Spike -- my body, myself, my trust. What more was I supposed to give him?" Tears welled in her eyes, spilled over to flow down her cheeks and fall onto the back of Spike's hands. She rubbed the wetness out viciously. "Stupid tears."

"Someone once said that no man is worth your crying over," Spike observed mildly. "And the one who is will never make you cry."

She sniffled. "I'm not crying any more."

"Of course not, Slayer." He gave her a moment to recover. "It's not about what you gave him. It's about how he made you feel. Was there ever a moment when the boy, and only the boy, existed for you? In or out of bed?"

"No. But..." Her eyes were bleak, but she dared hold his gaze. "I don't know how to feel that way about anyone. And I don't know what would have made Riley stay. He wanted me to need him, and I did. But not the way he needed me to, because that vampire still did things for him that I couldn't. Did he need me to be weak?"

"What do you think?" Spike challenged.

"I don't think I can do that. Not for Riley, not for anybody. If loving someone means being weak and pulling down all my defenses, I can't do it. I can't let that happen and still be the Slayer. I don't have anything else to give, not to him, not to anybody."

She stared up at the vampire, as if only just realizing who she was talking to, and about what. "Let me go. I didn't meant to come here or make you listen to this. I should go."

"It's all right." He stepped back, giving her space before she wound up enough to hit him.

"I feel stupid."

"You'll get over it." He watched her for a moment, gauging if she'd let him continue, or if she'd run.

Sighing, Buffy pushed her hair out of her face and rubbed her eyes. "Damn."

"Slayer. It isn't about what you have to give someone else. It's how you feel when you're with someone. How you can get lost in them because of the love you share, not because of whatever part of you they take."

"Riley said that I kept him at a distance. I didn't let him in."

Spike shook his head. "Whether you did or you didn't, letting someone in can't be commanded. It's a special sort of trust that has to be earned. And it doesn't make you weak."

"Does it--" She sniffled. "Does it say that if you can't give a man a reason to stay within two hours, then it's good-bye?"

"No."

She thought about that. "Xander said that I should have begged Riley to stay."

"Oh, bloody--" Spike gave a puff of exasperation. "Slayer, do you remember what I told you just before we fought for the first time?"

She wrinkled her nose at him. "You said a lot of things. Most of them were dirty with innuendo."

"Yeah, well. That's my style. What I said was that you didn't strike me as the begging kind. If the whelp thought so much of Soldier Boy, then the whelp should have been the one doing the begging."

Buffy laughed outright at that--an unexpected, bright sound that made the vampire grin. "I wish I'd thought to tell Xander that."

"You still can. You weren't made to beg before any man, Buffy. When someone loves you--the right someone--they don't expect you to beg for anything. They don't give you ultimatums, especially not after they've betrayed and hurt you. Riley should have been begging that you'd forgive him, never mind letting him stay in your life."

She seemed to brighten even further at that. "You really think so?"

"Yeah. I do. You gave the boy all you had to give. So what if it didn't work out because he had a taste for vampire skanks? There are plenty of other men out there. You go out and get yourself another one, and maybe that one will love you the way you deserve to be loved."

"What way is that?" Buffy looked as if she were afraid he might cuff her with his answer.

"A way that won't make you weak. Love makes you vulnerable, yeah, but good love doesn't make you weak. If it's the right someone and he has the right sort of love for you, he'll love your strength. He'll never ask you to be someone you're not. You'll be stronger for having another person in your life who accepts all of you and wants to be with you. Having you in the same room--just breathing and being--he'll be contented with that because he'll be contented with you. Love isn't finding someone you can live with. It's finding someone you can't live without."

She was listening so hard and gripping his arm so tightly, his muscles were starting to cramp. Spike didn't care, he was in too much of a hurry to get out everything he was thinking before her attention wandered or he pissed her off.

"That sort of love doesn't worry after power," he said in a rush. "It doesn't worry about who's on top or how you're supposed to touch. When a fellow loves you the right way, Slayer, he'll be happy with the touching itself, and that's more than bloody enough. Nobody else needed, just you."

Spike narrowed his eyes. "You find a love like that and build it day by day with a bloke who isn't in competition with you, and neither one of you will ever stray. You'll be too tangled up in each other to go looking for thrills or trulls elsewhere."

Buffy stared at him for a long moment, long enough to make Spike twitch and shrug and hop up onto the sarcophagus to sit next to her. That's it, he thought. I lost her three exits back, and she thinks I'm daft.

"You think that sort of feeling... sharing... is actually possible between two people?" Buffy asked eventually.

"Yeah. I do," he growled. "I've caught glimpses of it a few times. Enough to make me believe in it."

"Is that what you had with Drusilla?"

He thought for a moment. "If there'd been a way to heal Dru, yeah, I think we could have had that. But she was always on the far of sane, and she belonged to Angelus because he sired her. So no, Dru and I never had anything like that. But I saw glimpses sometimes of the sweetness Angelus destroyed."

Turning in place, Buffy folded up her legs to sit crosslegged opposite Spike. "Maybe it's me? Maybe I just don't know how to love. Or maybe I jump into bed too fast while Im holding back in other ways?"

Sighing, she stretched and pulled back her hair. "I feel so impatient with myself, Spike, I want to believe what you say is true, but how am I supposed to find someone who wants to try getting there with me, and not give up for some other thrill?"

"You know there are no guarantees, Slayer. Not in life, and not in love."

"Now there's a comfort."

"Would you rather I lied to you, then? Told you that sweetness and roses and the right guy are waiting just around the next tombstone? Look, you either believe in yourself and you keep trying to love, or you give up and close down and stay alone." He pointed a long finger at her. "I will tell you this: you're a beautiful, strong woman and there's nothing wrong with you or the way you love. You've just gotten dealt some bad cards at the beginning of your game. When you're as old as I am, if you're still alone, then you've got something to worry about. In the meantime, you might stop looking for 'the one' and try having some fun shopping around."

She giggled. "You think I should go through boyfriends like I go through shoes?"

"Keep the comfortable ones and toss the painful ones?" Spike shrugged. "You could do worse. Hell, you have done worse, just look at Captain Forehead and the runt you got rid of tonight. I won't even mention Parker, the worthless pecker."

"You just did." The tears were all gone, she was sitting and grinning at him now. Somewhere along the way, her pain had lessened. Spike's unbeating heart warmed to realize he had helped.

"What sort of boyfriend were you before you were turned?"

Relaxing back on the stone, Spike reached for his lighter and cigarettes. "I was a completely besotted and annoying choir boy, as you well know since I told you as much only a few weeks ago."

"That's hard to envision." She waved away his smoke. "You're so confident and together now. Okay, so maybe you fake it..." A yawn caught Buffy and she rubbed at her eyes. "This is the most I think we've ever talked."

"Without hitting each other, yeah. It's time we got you home and safe tucked away in your bed, Slayer. You look tired." Hopping down from the sarcophagus, he thought better of offering a hand to help her down.

"What, you're walking me home now?"

"Yeah. But don't I'm gonna make a habit of it." Gathering his coat, Spike shrugged into it. The William-git inside of him protested with he let Buffy pull open the crypt door herself.

"How's your mum doing?" he asked on the way back to Revello Drive.

"Better." Buffy looked pleased that he had asked. "They got all of the tumor, so she's going to make a full recovery. She'll be home soon."

"If she needs any help, you know where to find me."

"I'll do that."

The rest of the walk was completed in companionable silence until they turned down the sidewalk leading to Buffy's front door. A breeze stirred the big cypress dominating the yard, its shadows dappling the front window. Spike glanced over as Buffy did, checking the darkness beyond for lurking demons.

"You know, I've cleaned up your cigarette butts from beneath that tree twice in the past month," Buffy muttered. "Not that I'm complaining, exactly - okay, maybe I am complaining. What do you do out here at night, besides smoke?"

"Making sure no nasties come around." Spike followed her onto the porch. "Looking after you and the Bit while your mum's gone, whether you think you need it or not." He gave a thin smile at her stare of disbelief. "Humor me."

"Is that how you caught Riley?

"Yeah." Spike glowered up at the moth-tormented porch light fastened to the brick over Buffy's shoulder. "Don't any man in his right mind who could leave you in the middle of the night."

"I guess I didn't want him in all the--"

"Wrong ways?" Spike made a rude noise. "Iowa farmboy was looking for the perfect little domestic cow. You'll never be domesticated, Slayer, and no man should dare try. You weren't made to help plow the fields or to can fruit, or to take orders from anybody."

He managed to look outraged and obstinate at the same time, and Buffy laughed. "I know a couple of people who'd agree with you there - my Mom for a start."

She inserted her key into the lock. "Want to come in for some cocoa? Say hi to Dawn?"

He hesitated for only a moment, his eyes searching hers as if for reassurance she wasn't asking out of polite obligation. "You don't mind?"

"I wouldn't have asked if I minded. Come on in." She pushed open the door and went inside, not bothering to see if he followed her. She knew he would. Catching sight of her sister sitting at the dining-room table, Buffy walked through and announced, "Dawnie, we have company."

"Spike!" Dawn leaped up so fast that she nearly tipped over her chair. Throwing herself at the vampire, she hugged him hard.

"Hello, Nibblet." Closing his eyes, Spike slid his hands beneath the teenager's long hair and hugged back.

"I haven't seen you in forever."

"Since when is four days forever? And how'd you do on that biology test you were so worried about?"

"I got a B. But there's always more." Pulling away, Dawn glowered at the chaotic pile of books and papers spread across the table.

Spike pulled up a chair beside her. "What did you leave for the last minute this time?"

Dawn bristled. "I didn't leave it until the last minute. I have two days to do a paper on somebody in the American Revolution."

Hiding a smile at the easy debate that seemed to be the rule rather than the exception whenever Evil Undead and Little Sister got together, Buffy slipped into the kitchen to find the cocoa.

"So what's the problem?" The conversation continued in Buffy's absence.

"I don't know who to write about."

"Does it have to be somebody you've been reading about, or will anybody do?"

"Anybody. I just have to back it up with references. Hey, where are you going?"

"Your mum has a movie that might help." Spike's voice receded, and Buffy sensed he was moving into the living room. "Here it is... '1776'. That talks about your bloody revolution. Should be somebody in here that you can write about."

"Hello, Spike? That's not history, it's a musical. I need contemporary references, remember?"

"It's based on history, isn't it? So use the playwright. Here, there are two. Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone."

"I can't do that."

"Why not?"

"They're not official sources."

"Fine, Bit. Watch the movie, pick somebody you like from it, and go to the library tomorrow."

"There's not enough time." That was definitely whinage, and Buffy strained her ears to hear how Spike handled it.

Silence. And more silence.

"Spike..."

"I can't bloody write the paper for you, now can I? I'm a Brit, it would be totally biased."

"As if you ever would."

"It's not as if you've never asked. Now, sit your butt on the couch while I pop in the movie."

"This is so not going to work."

"You got a better idea?"

"Nooooo."

"Then shut up and watch before I bite you."

Buffy brought in the hot chocolate to discover Dawn slouched and sulky on the couch, with Spike not far behind in the easy-chair opposite the television.

"I remembered the marshmallows." Buffy offered a shy smile.

"Ta, pet. And where's your drink?" he murmured, not wanting to interrupt the movie that now seemed to have seduced Dawn.

"It's going upstairs with me. I want a hot bath."

"You want me to leave?"

"Why would I want you to leave?" She squeezed his shoulder through the duster. "You can take this off, you know? Stay and let Dawn glare at you some more."

"Yeah, I'd like that."

Butterflies scattered in Buffy's belly when Spike smiled--a warm, open thing that she had seldom seen. He's usually too busy snarling insults and threats at me, she reflected. Then again, he hasn't been doing much of that tonight.

Retreating to the bath, Buffy ran the water as hot as she could stand it before climbing in, sipping her hot chocolate, and soaking until her skin became pruny. Dawn's voice wafted from downstairs along with the quiet rumble of Spike's reply - both from too far away for Buffy to make out their actual words, but Dawn really did seem to have settled down.

Their voices faded after a few minutes, and Buffy left the cooling water to comb out her wet hair and and pull on a pair of worn sweats. Descending the stairs, she found Spike turning off the television as Dawn had fallen asleep on the couch.

"I hope she saw enough that she was able to choose a victim for that paper," Buffy whispered.

"She did. Thomas Jefferson." He nodded at Dawn where she was curled up awkwardly on the couch. "You want I should move her? She's drooling on the pillow."

Buffy hesitated. "I would feel better if she were upstairs."

"No problem." Sliding his arms beneath the sleeping teenager, Spike lifted her effortlessly into his arms. Cradling her head against his shoulder, the vampire followed Buffy up the stairs and waited as she turned down the bedcovers.

Settling the girl carefully in her bed, Spike reached for the blankets to tuck her in. A bemused Buffy watched from the foot of the bed. They left the bedroom together, with Buffy pulling the door not quite closed.

"I think it's time I was going," Spike whispered in the hallway.

Buffy nodded and led the way back downstairs. The vampire gathered his coat as Buffy headed for the door.

"Thank you," she murmured while he shrugged into the squeaking leather.

Spike glanced over his shoulder as Buffy followed him onto the porch. "No need to thank me, Slayer."

"I know. It's just that I feel somewhat better after talking to you," she admitted, unable to continue meeting his gaze.

"How's that?" came the gentle question.

"All of the anger has sort of melted away. I feel sad now, but more at peace about Riley's leaving, if that makes sense." Leaning against the doorframe, Buffy stared up at the vampire. "Do you think it's normal for feelings to change like that?"

"Yeah, I do. You could wake up tomorrow and be angry with him again. I think it's pretty much an emotional seesaw whenever somebody hurts you. It was for me when Dru..." He shrugged and tried hard not to stare at the girl standing before him. He'd never seen her like this before - with her face scrubbed free of makeup, he hair straight and wet around her shoulders. In place of the Slayer was someone much younger, smaller somehow, and definitely vulnerable.

She's got no armor right now, he realized. Slayer's nothing but a fragile little thing. If she came to his chin without the three-inch heels she normally wore to kick his butt, the vampire would have been surprised. I could break her into pieces. Angelus nearly did.

"You made me see things differently tonight," Buffy said, choosing her words slowly, as if with great care. "Thanks for listening and walking me home. And for helping Dawn."

"I'll help Dawn and listen to you anytime."

"Yeah? You've got nothing better to do, right?"

"That's not why." He held her gaze for a long moment until she looked away. He retrieved a cigarette and flicked open his lighter. Taking a long drag, he let out the smoke and nodded at Buffy. "G'night, Slayer. Lock up tight behind me, you hear?"

That gained him a startled look and an amused smile, as if the Slayer and her strength needed to guard against any uglies of the night. Turning, Spike descended the steps.

"Goodnight," Buffy murmured. The door whispered closed, and he heard her snick the deadbolt home.

That's my good girl.

Buffy dutifully brushed her teeth, turned out the lights, and checked on Dawn before wandering into her bedroom. Hesitating after turning down the bed, she moved to the window to push back the curtains.

She waited only a few seconds before seeing what she needed to see: the red glow of Spike's cigarette in the dark where he stood beneath her cypress tree. Smoke curled around the trunk, only to be whisked away when the breeze took it.

With a tummy full of hot chocolate and a vampire on watch, Buffy felt she might actually be able to sleep. That to Riley. She nudged up the window a couple of inches.

"Goodnight, Spike," she whispered.

His vampire hearing didn't disappoint. "'Night, Slayer. Sleep well."

The faintest scent of smoke was wafting into the room. Climbing into bed, Buffy decided to leave the window open.

END